AP Wants Hyphens to (Literally) Go the Way of the Oxford Comma

The Oxford or serial comma is one of the more divisive parts of the English language (even more so than the singular they), and it looks like the hyphen will be relegated to the same battlefield.

Last week the AP updated its style guide and sorta-but-not-quite-killed the rule on hyphens:

The talk around the watercooler is that this is going to cause endless confusion. There are all sorts of people making witty remarks about it online, and I was all set to join them, but then I started thinking about what this rule really meant.

The AP didn’t kill the hyphen rule and they didn’t come up with a new standard. Instead, they have normalized what everyone was already doing anyway.

Let me put it this way. Have you ever written a sentence and agonized over whether you need to include a hyphen? The AP just said that if your sentence is clear and understandable without the hyphen then it’s fine and you don’t have to obsess over the hyphen.

Sorry if this spoils your fun at the AP’s expense, but their decision is just too sensible for me to poke fun at. That said, I can easily imagine hyphen use becoming an element of style that is as bitterly fought over as the Oxford comma. There will be those why decry its use when not needed, and those who insist it must always be used.

Which group do you fall in to?

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Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Mike Cane3 September, 2019

    Hyphens and Oxford comma. The rest of you should just surrender now.

  2. Anna Castle3 September, 2019

    They’re not killing the hyphen; they’re making it discrectionary. If there were such a thing as a quarter goal, you’d need a hyphen to distinguish a goal made during the first quarter and the first quarter-goal made. Adds work for editors, but they had to discriminate with judgement anyway.

  3. Richard Hershberger3 September, 2019

    “Let me put it this way. Have you ever written a sentence and agonized over whether you need to include a hyphen? The AP just said that if your sentence is clear and understandable without the hyphen then it’s fine and you don’t have to obsess over the hyphen.”

    The thing is, under the old rule there was no need to agonize. The rule was objective and unambiguous. It is the new rule that introduces agonizing. “commonly recognized as one phrase” and “the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen” are judgment calls. Clarity of meaning in particular is notoriously difficult to judge in your own writing, since *you* understand clearly what you meant.

  4. Sunita3 September, 2019

    I agree that the rule is not hard to follow. The bigger problem is that many students do not learn English grammar systematically anymore, so they come to these conventions/rules not knowing the underlying logic and when/how to apply them. Clarity is useful, but you have to learn the rules in order to be precise.

    I’ll keep using hyphens. They make my writing clearer to those who aren’t living in my head, and I’m not bound by the AP Stylebook in any writing I do.

  5. Kevin Barthelemy9 September, 2019

    I’d have to say that AP got it right, as far as hyphenation goes. The funny thing to me, as far as style guides go, is that many people seem to take them as law, practically. They miss the meaning of the phrase “style guide”.

    Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was never taught any grammar beyond 6th or 7th grade, having been out of regular school for around a year, and when I returned, being sent to a different school than the one which I’d left. One thing that I do recall having been taught, was to avoid ambiguity by using something along the lines of common sense. That is, *read* the sentence, if it can be misread, fix it, then continue. I learned most of my English grammar by reading…lots of reading, mostly science fiction and fantasy. It’s been many years since I had to worry about what anyone else thought of my grammar and punctuation, so I write the way I choose.

    Far too many of the problems in English grammar, I believe, can be put at the doorstep of the classicists, who wanted English to be more like Latin. I definitely don’t recommend learning grammar the way I did, but I have the advantage of being more than a little above average in intelligence. Heh, I found out a few weeks ago, that Edith Hamilton (whose book Mythology was a favorite when I was a kid) was one of those self-righteous classicists, though on an amateur standing.


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