Category Archives: editing

The “Al” Pals

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Today’s edition continues where we left off last time with the remaining “al” pals: altogether vs. all together, already vs. all ready, and alot vs. a lot.

Altogether vs. All Together

Pants on the Ground

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines altogether as:

  • A noun meaning nude (used with the): “He dropped his drawers and stood there in the altogether.”
  • An adverb meaning wholly, completely, thoroughly; in all, all told; on the whole, in the main, as a whole: “We were altogether shocked.”

As two words, all together means in unison: “We marched down the street all together, arm in arm.” You can split up the two words (instead of keeping them all together, har-har), and the sentence will still make sense: “We all marched down the street together.” You can’t do this with altogether: “We all were together shocked.” Nuh-uh.

Altogether = entirely
All together = collectively

Already vs. All Ready

M-W defines already as an adverb, meaning, prior to some specified or implied past, present, or future time; by this time; previously; so soon, so early; now. “He dropped his drawers already” (previously). “Would you stop looking so shocked already?” (now).

“All ready” (two words) means everything is prepared, as in “We were all ready to turn our backs.” You can split the phrase, and the sentence will still make sense: “We all were ready to turn our backs, but we just stared.”

Already = previously
All ready = prepared

Alot vs. A Lot

A lot as two words means a bunch, a great deal, many, much. “We liked his knees a lot.” Like alright, alot ain’t even a word. Don’t use it, please.

Alot = not a word
A lot = much, many

And there you have it, Al. Use them wisely and be a pal!

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Eliminating Little Words

To make your writing more concise, it pays to eliminate little words.

For readers, each word is like a step across the sentence. If you take big steps, you’ll reach the period faster. If you’re forced to take many small steps, the trip is long and laborious.

Take this sentence for example:

The carriage came to a stop, and Wilhelmina stepped out onto the cobblestones.

Whenever a preposition is paired with a direction word, often one of them is unnecessary: Sat down in the chair. Pushed off of the dock. Climbed up onto the ledge.

We can dispense with one of the words:

  • Sat on the chair.
  • Pushed off the dock.
  • Climbed onto the ledge.

To make our first example even more concise, we could shorten “came to a stop” to simply “stopped”:

The carriage stopped, and Wilhelmina stepped onto the cobblestones.

Scour your text for opportunities to cut little words, and your prose will skip along.

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Hyphenation 101: Hyphenating Compound Adjectives and Adverbs

Sometimes when more than one adjective is used to modify a noun, the adjectives must be hyphenated to make the meaning clear. But lets start with a case where hyphenation is unnecessary.

  • dangerous bacterial infection
  • sprawling suburban plan
  • polite postal workers

Dangerous, sprawling, and polite are adjectives, and infection, plan, and worker are nouns. The words in the middle are also adjectives, but in these uses they combine with the final nouns to create a compound nouns that express a single concept. In each case, the first word modifies the next two. Dangerous modifies bacterial infection. Whether or not postal workers are polite is beyond the scope of this article.

Compound adjectives

But what about these?Hyphen

  • gay rights advocate
  • minor league umpire
  • live action directing

These first words are adjectives and the third ones are nouns. However, the middle words are nouns that combine not with the following nouns, but with the adjectives that precede them. These are compound adjectives. The first refers to an advocate for gay rights, not a general advocate for rights who happens to be gay. It’s the league that’s minor, not the umpire. So we need to clarify the meaning and indicate proper compounding by connecting the first two words: gay-rights advocate, minor-league umpire, live-action directing.

We can also have two or more adjectives modifying a final noun:

  • short black hair
  • sweet young lady
  • stout little man

None of these combinations need to be hyphenated because their meanings are clear. The hair is short and black; the lady is both young and sweet; the man is little as well as stout.

Hyphenating multiple adjectives

But what about the following?

  • exported vegetable products
  • offensive language patterns
  • stone carving blade

Are the middle words supposed to combine with their preceding adjectives, or with the final nouns? There’s a difference between products made of exported vegetables and vegetable products that are exported. Are the patterns studied those of offensive language? Or are the language patterns themselves offensive? Is the blade meant for carving stone, or is the carving blade made of stone? You must make the meaning clear by correctly combining the words with a hyphen: stone-carving blade, etc.

Five week old kittens are beginning to get frisky. Are there five kittens only a week old? (Five week-old kittens…) Or an indeterminate number of kittens that are five weeks old? (Five-week-old kittens…)

To indicate how multiple adjectives modify a noun, you must clarify meaning with commas or hyphens. For instance, in the garden you see a red striped lizard and post about it on Facebook. Is it a red lizard that is striped (red, striped lizard), or a lizard with red stripes (red-striped lizard)?

Hyphenate to prevent confusion

You must also hyphenate compound adjectives that precede a noun if, unhyphenated, would lead to ambiguity or confusion. The new student questionnaires will be distributed on the first day of school. Are the questionnaires for new, incoming students? (The new-student questionnaires…) Or are the student questionnaires changed from the old ones? (The new student-questionnaires…)

Hyphenating adverbial compounds

When verbs are modified with adverbs that end in “-ly,” the compound should not be hyphenated.

  • Incorrect: The abattoir was run by a highly-skilled team of butchers.
  • Correct: The abattoir was run by a highly skilled team of butchers.
  • Incorrect: Add a pinch of freshly-chopped basil.
  • Correct: Add a pinch of freshly chopped basil.

However, the exception is that, if an “-ly” adverb is used with a preceding compound adjective that has at least two other components, use a hyphen: She rattled off what sounded like a quickly-made-up story. Another exception is to drop hyphens when the same words follow the noun being modified: She rattled off a story that sounded like it was quickly made up.

When a non-“-ly” adverb is used in a compound adjective preceding a noun it modifies, link them with a hyphen: The well-written novel is a bestseller. Drop the hyphen if the modifying words come after the noun: The bestselling novel is well written.

The suspense is hyphenating me

A final use for hyphens is as a shortcut to abbreviate a repeated base word that uses different modifiers. Confused? An example should help.

At times she both undercompensated and overcompensated for her actions. Two fat, repeated words could be trimmed down like this: At times she both under- and overcompensated for her actions.

A suspension hyphen lets readers know that there’s something intentionally missing. The suspension hyphen can also be used to precede a repeated compound word: The secretary took minutes of the Day-1 and -2 proceedings.

Are we done yet?

There are a few more rules and exceptions, but frankly, I’m exhausted. So we’re done with hyphens, okay?

Next up, more about problematic participles and misplaced modifiers. Nothing at all about alliteration.


Source: Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, and Grammar (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997).

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Hyphenation 101: Hyphenation with Prefixes and Suffixes

Today’s installment of hyphenation in spelling covers hyphenating words that contain a prefix or suffix.

Most of these cases never take a hyphen (unspoken, discernible). Others may take one, some should be hyphenated, and some must be hyphenated. Some… well, you can take your pick, such as anti-hero or antihero, pre-mixed or premixed, ultra-violet or ultraviolet. As always, check your dictionary, use what it says, and don’t worry about it—just be consistent in the same piece of writing. (The trend as language progresses is to drop hyphens and close the words.)

Don’t be peculiar

No one will stumble over worldwide or clockwise. But when combining a root word with a prefix or suffix makes the word look odd (or pronounce strangely), use a hyphen. For example, preceremony looks funny, and I experience some confusion when trying to subvocalize it. Pre-ceremony works better. “Their house could use an update, windowwise.” Try window-wise.

Anne Stilman lists others that might be hard to read if not hyphenated: antiinflammatory/anti-inflammatory, nonnative/non-native, multititled/multi-titled, shelllike/shell-like.

Don’t change the meaning

Stilman provides some great examples of prefixed words that have entirely different meanings when hyphenated:

  • Re-signed/resigned
  • Re-creation/recreation
  • Un-ionized/unionized

When the root word is capitalized or is a number

  • un-American
  • post-Civil War era
  • Germany-wide
  • pre-1700s
  • under-21s

With certain prefixes or suffixes

Prefixes: all, ex, self—all-encompassing, all-embracing; ex-member, ex-wife; self-esteem, self-recrimination.

Suffixes: elect, odd, free—president-elect; thirty-odd students; sodium-free.

Hyphenated numbers

When you spell out a number containing two words (from twenty-one to ninety-nine), hyphenate the words. This also applies to fractions. For example: thirty-three, two hundred ninety-seven, one-quarter. For fractions that include a two-word number, hyphenate only the two-word number and not the fraction: four twenty-sixths, three one-hundredths of a degree.

Next up, we’ll learn the rulse of hyphenating compound adjectives.


Source: Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, and Grammar (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997).

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Hyphenation 101: Hyphenating Compound Words

Let’s continue with our subject of the uses of hyphenation in spelling and begin with this definition from Anne Stilman:

A compound consists of two or more words that express a single concept. A compound word may act as a noun, a verb or an adjective, or even all three.

There are a few different types of compounds:

TYPE DEFINITION EXAMPLE
Open compounds Words written separately with a space between them time frame
Closed compounds Words run together with no space separating them crossbreed
Hyphenated compounds Words linked with a hyphen hand-feed

Would that there were predictable rules governing the compounding of words; there aren’t. This means you need a good dictionary to check the proper compounding of words. (I use Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.)

Note also that language changes constantly. Words often begin as hyphenated compounds and then eventually drop the hyphen, becoming closed. (For example, over the past twenty years, e-mail has become email.)

Compound Nouns

Stilman states, “Compound nouns that comprise more than two words, such as idioms and phrases, usually take hyphens.” For example: He’s a Johnny-come-lately. Check a dictionary or a reliable list of idioms.

If a word is compounded with a single letter, it is either open or hyphenated (not closed): A-frame, B picture, T square, H-bomb, V neck.

Some compound nouns can be closed or hyphenated, such as carry-over/carryover, short-list/shortlist. Again, check the dictionary.

Compound Adjectives

When you use more than one adjective to modify a noun, sometimes they must be linked with a hyphen to ensure clarity. For example, there’s a difference in the meaning of these sentences:

  • Seven week old kittens mewled in the cardboard box. (One or more of the adjectives must be hyphenated to make the meaning clear.)
  • Seven weekold kittens mewled in the cardboard box. (Seven kittens, all one week old, are mewling in the box.)
  • Sevenweekold kittens mewled in the cardboard box. (An indeterminate number of kittens, all seven weeks old, are mewling.)

Compounding adjectives deserves a post of its own, so subscribe and check back later for another lively discussion.

Compound Verbs

Compound verbs are usually open but are sometimes closed or hyphenated. Often, a closed noun compound becomes open when used as a verb compound. For example:

  • She experienced a breakthrough. (closed compound noun)
  • She wanted to break through her crippling grief. (open compound verb)

Some hyphenated compound nouns become open when used as verbs, for example, show-off/show off.

When verbs are compounded, it is often between the verb and some kind of direction word: back-check, stick up, break down, make up. When verbs are open compounds, the space often comes between the verb and a preposition: break through, stand in.

Commonly Mishyphenated Words

Stilman lists a number of words and phrases that are often hyphenated but shouldn’t be. These include: more or less, ongoing, a priori, ad hoc. Latin phrases should not be hyphenated.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at hyphenation in prefixes and suffixes. I’ll bet you can’t wait!


Source: Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, and Grammar (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997).

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Hyphenation 101: Primary Uses of Hyphens in Spelling

I’m reading my way through Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, and Grammar (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997). Call me strange, but as a writer and editor, I eat this stuff up. This book inspires my next series of posts.

Today we’ll begin with the subject of hyphenation.

Hyphens are punctuation marks. But they’re also components of spelling.

Spelling a word correctly involves more than including the right letters in the right order. Some words require hyphens, such as multi-item. Others are misspelled (or misunderstood) if they’re hyphenated but shouldn’t be, such as under-way or a-priori.

As a function of spelling, Stilman lists the following as functions of the hyphen:

  • To link words that make up a compound word (such as two-way or water-resistant)
  • To attach a prefix or suffix to the main word (anti-inflammatory)
  • To connect words that make up a number (twenty-three)

Believe it or not, for such a small character, there’s a lot to say about hyphens. The previous list lays our plans for the next few posts about using hyphens in spelling. Then we’ll conclude with one or more editions about their use as punctuation marks.

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How to Work with an Editor

This was some good advice for all you writers paling at your editor’s comment balloons and tracked changes.


Bill and Dave’s Bad Advice Wednesday: “How to Work with an Editor.”

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Ferreting Out Filter Words

I recently encountered a post on Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s blog, Write It Sideways. It’s about filter words, character POV observations that create an extra layer of perception that distances your reader from what’s happening in your narrative.

The Filtered View

Susan Dennard explains in The Writing Life: “Filters are words or phrases you tack onto the start of sentence that show the world as it is filtered through the main character’s eyes.” For example:

Henry saw the rack of magazines along the back wall of the convenience store.

If you’re telling the story from within Henry’s POV, why announce his perceptions? Filtering creates a view of narrative action like the security camera in the front corner of the store. If you’re telling the story from Henry’s POV, inside his head, move the camera behind his eyes and simply report what he sees:

The rack of magazines stood along the back wall.

Sometimes you want to draw attention to a character’s perception process, and in these cases it’s acceptable to use a filter word. But in most instances, filtering is unnecessary and should be edited out.

Watch out for “realized.” Instead of “She wondered if he was on his way home,” turn the wondering into a question: “Was he on his way home?”

If filtering is an issue for you in your fiction writing, I encourage you to read Suzannah’s and Susan’s original posts, linked above. And check out two more great articles on the subject by Tracie McBride and Leslie.

If you need some editing help, let me know.

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