I’ll tell you where you can put your hyphens…

Behold! I am about to Impart Wisdom. This is because I was thanked for my expertise in a Facebook group this week. Now, I know that I’m an expert on EVERYTHING, obvs, but in said Facebook group, which is stuffed to the gills with people who’ve been editing for longer than I’ve been able to legally drink, I don’t always get to feel like one.

So what, I hear you cry, was I so knowledgeable about?


Now, being a Northern lass who spent several years working with technicians in the music industry, I’m no stranger to a bit of profanity. A lot of people, up North and beyond, are like me – we like our swears and we like to get inventive with them. Which is all well and good, but when you’re a copy-editor, there’s all of a sudden a different dimension to it. Namely, where the hell do you put the hyphens?

See, when you’re editing and you come across a compound you’re not sure of, you can often look it up in your dictionary of choice, and it will be there, open, closed or hyphenated, depending on what that dictionary has decided is correct, or at least the most prevalent. But ‘shit-ton’ is not in the dictionary. Nor is ‘mindfuck’, or ‘shitshow’, or many of the other terms some of my clients (and in particular my biggest client, a fellow Northern lass with a penchant for a foul-mouthed bad boy) like to use on a regular basis. So, my colleague was asking on Facebook, where do you turn to in such situations? Luckily, I have much experience in these matters.

First, do try the dictionary. You might be surprised as to what’s made it in there. My examples above may not be in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, but ‘batshit’, ‘apeshit’, ‘fuck up’ and ‘fuck all’ all make an appearance.

If the dictionary fails you, then make your next port of call Buzzfeed’s excellent style guide. All of my examples above can be found in there, plus many more. It’s also a fantastic resource if your manuscript contains lots of references to social media – how to style Facebook likes (lowercase, no quotes), for example, has not yet made it into the other main style guides used for fiction.

Google can be helpful, as can Urban Dictionary, if only to give you a vague idea of how people are using a term in practice. However, there are certain word combinations you may not want to Google, as I felt when I came across the inconsistently styled ‘cum-slut’ in a recent manuscript (and if you found this blog post by searching that, then I hope you’re suitably disappointed). In that case, or if your searches have been fruitless or left you more confused than you were when you started, then you’ve just got to bite the bullet and make a decision. Pick a way of styling it and stick to it throughout the manuscript. And definitely note it down on your style sheet; it’ll save you a shit-ton of effort next time.

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