I must admit that despite my inability to correctly use them most of the time, I'm going to miss the hyphen. Now if we could just do something about the pesky little en dash:
THE Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the scaled-down, two-volume version of the mammoth 20-volume O.E.D., just got a little shorter. With the dispatch of a waiter flicking away flyspecks, the editor, Angus Stevenson, eliminated some 16,000 hyphens from the sixth edition, published last month. “People are not confident about using hyphens anymore,” he said. “They’re not really sure what they’re for.”
The dictionary is not dropping all hyphens. The ones in certain compounds remain (“well-being,” for example), as do those indicating a word break at the right-hand margin — the use for which this versatile little punctuation mark, a variation on the slash, the all-purpose medieval punctuation, was invented in the first place.
What’s getting the heave are most hyphens linking the halves of a compound noun. Some, like “ice cream,” “fig leaf,” “hobby horse” and “water bed,” have been fractured into two words, while many others, like “ bumblebee,” “crybaby” and “pigeonhole,” have been squeezed into one.
That “ice cream” and “bumblebee” ever had hyphens to begin with suggests an excess of fussiness on the part of older lexicographers, and may explain some of Mr. Stevenson’s annoyance. The issue of proper hyphenation has always been vexing for the Brits, far more than it is for us, and occasioned perhaps the single crankiest article in Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” first published in 1926.