The Tale of the Disappearing Hyphen in Digital Publishing

The almighty hyphen: Here today, gone tomorrow

Some people accuse me of being an academic wonk. At Mequoda we’re often forced to make up our own lingo because you can’t pioneer an industry to the digital shores without making up a few words. While our terminology hasn’t changed very much since we invented it, the rest of the world has been progressing in their own lingo.

For example, when we went to publish our new handbook, Multiplatform Publishing Strategy, we originally used a hyphen, calling it Multi-Platform Publishing Strategy.

Keyword research would show that both iterations had the same search volume, because Google is differentiating hyphens less and less. But from there, we decided to Google them both. Googling “multi-platform publishing” returned a page full of results for “multiplatform publishing.” And when we Googled “multiplatform publishing,” we found our colleagues. Any results that used a hyphen were published in 2011 or before.

Folio, a company we trust with naming conventions in our industry, shows up for “multiplatform publishing,” without the hyphen. According to Dictionary.com, there’s no definition for either version — it was up to us.

So, with the industry and our favorite search engine on our side, the hyphen disappeared.

Language is Always Changing, Faster Than Ever Before

We’re a fairly adaptable species when it comes to language. People born in the southern United States have a different accent than those who grew up in New York City, but some people say that spending just a week or two in the south is enough for them to pick up a slight southern drawl.

So what happened to the hyphen in e-mail? When was the last time you took the time to find your dash button and place it between e and  mail? When you Google the term, it doesn’t yet ask “did you mean email?” but it does give you a page full of results for “email.” The Oxford English Dictionary dropped the hyphen an 2007, but AP didn’t make the switch until 2011.

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As if we needed final permission from the Grey Lady herself, The New York Times made an announcement in October of 2013 that they’d stop using hyphens in e-mail. We accept the declaration, but email service providers have been calling themselves email service providers for some time.

They also declared no spaces between web and site, rather opting into website. Another one, unknown to many, is that despite this Tweet from the New York Times, Twitter actually asks writers to capitalize the letter T in Tweet.

E-book, another one, has dropped the hyphen. Amazon.com calls their Kindle books eBooks, so if anybody was going to make the decision for all of us on the topic, it would be Jeff Bezos.

The Thing About Hyphens

The APA style has rules about hyphens

“Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or, as with many psychological terms, its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.”

…but when you’re already making up words, like e-book or e-mail, it’s up to the world to decide if a hyphen works … and when it stops working, and when it’s time to make a new word, like ebook, or email. (And just as we no longer say electric lightbulb but have shortened it to simply lightbulb, taking the electric for granted, I wonder when it will simply be book … and mail.

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