AP's how-to-use-hyphens-wisely guide causes consternation among pedants

I’m not arguing the grammar issue – I actually agree with much of that from way back. Trying to turn a language with a Germanic core syntax into bad Latin is a loser that has cost far too much brainpower already [1]. I’m also resigned to letting go of pronoun number agreement with “they” and “their” as singular gender-nonspecific. Apostrophizing plurals still gripes me but I hope I know when I’ve lost, just as I did long ago with “ms” (that really wasn’t a bad choice.) It looks like the distinction between “insure” and “ensure” is on the way to the trash as well.

ETA: Some degree of language standardization – such as this one, although it’s minor – is necessary to preserve languages use for communication.

However, some of these change’s are frankly coming from bad spellchecker’s instead, and the distinction between “proscribe” and “prescribe” is still important, so it may be this old coots literal [2] hill to die on.

[1] I take my lead from the great man of letters, Winston Churchill, on that point.
[2] New meaning, exactly the opposite of the old one that most of us grew up with [3].
[3] Note the preposition at the end of the sentence.

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I actually agree with you completely. I love the word proscribe, and it’s totally wrong here. I was in full absurdist devil’s advocate mode (hopefully not in violation of forum rules about arguing in good faith since we’re talking about word pedantry here).

I personally have a huge beef with the “literal” means “literal” people.

First, Mark Twain used it as an intensifier and if they think they are better at English than Mark Twain they should be providing some extraordinary proof of that.


  • The “ver” in “very” is from verus, as in true
  • The “real” in “really” is the word “real”, as in a real thing
  • The “tru” in “truly” in the word “true”, like straight up “true”

So basically words that mean something is actually the case are pretty much always co-opted as intensifiers. It just makes sense. If I say “I love you” I don’t need to qualify it with an adverb saying I’m not lying. If I say I “truly” love someone, it is saying that my love is somehow more true or real than the less true or real love I might feel or that others feel. That’s an intensifier.

And third and finally, it drives me nuts because it’s like they think “literal” is a magic word that alters the entire sentence it’s in. If I say, “I pissed myself laughing” I’m likely not telling the truth, or you could say I’m using a metaphor. If I say “I literally pissed myself laughing” I’m still likely not telling the truth. The word “literal” doesn’t have the magical power to make the sentence true any more than the word “really” would if I said, “I really pissed myself laughing” or the phrase “in actuality, without exaggeration or metaphor” would if I said “I, in actuality, without exaggeration or metaphor, pissed myself laughing.” If I say that last sentence, odds are very good I’m still saying it metaphorically even thought the sentence specifically says I am not. You can’t trust a sentence to tell you whether the sentence is true. “Literally”, just like every other word, can be used in sentences that aren’t literally, really, truly, verily, actually true.

I once stormed out of a philosophy of mathematics class in anger after a bitter argument with my professor about whether there was a spectrum between the literal and the figurative or whether it was a dichotomy. I’m not going to let some arm chair grammarians lecture me on what is really and epistemological issue.


Great post. I support good pedantry and oppose bad pedantry! :smile: In the same vein as what you’re saying, it drives me nuts when people (esp. online) want to turn everything into definitional arguments. It’s like, you know —
And all the rules, too. Now, I do support writing prescriptivism based on clarity and good practice (“X construction can be confusing or lead to miscues [examples], so prefer Y construction instead”).

Is it really forbidden to argue in good faith? What a sad thought.

Anyway, my take on “literal” and “figurative” is very much in the literary interpretation sense. Usually you can tell them apart from context, and of course lately when someone tells me that they “literally died laughing” it’s not too hard to tell that they’re at best wasting their breath and at worst trying to sell a lie. A large part of my objection there is that it is very rarely used in any beneficial sense.

So, like “ensure” vs “insure” and “proscribe” vs. “prescribe” my concern is not that they’re using the word wrong but rather that they’re destroying a useful distinction with no replacement.

As for the grammar, I leave you with the I-wish-they-were-immortal words of Winston Churchill:

Ending a sentence with a preposition is something with which we will not put!

The rules prescribe rather than proscribe argument in good faith.

In an ideal world we’d see someone using “proscribe” when the mean “prescribe” and think, “Hey, this is an opportunity to tell someone about a really neat word they don’t know!” and they’d then end up thinking, “Oh, that’s great, I love that word!” I know that’s a fantasy, but I guess I think there is actually some value in revealing the difference, or, my personal favourite, to letting people know that both affect and effect are both verbs and nouns and they have totally different meanings in each case (because I love the verb effect and the noun affect is useful).

It really is totally different than scolding over sentence structure or hyphens or creative use of words, and I really was just being silly when I pointed out a pained interpretation where “proscribe” could have been correct in the original article.

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