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Among word pushers, some really need to lighten up and find something better to do with their time. A good example: Those who find grammatical flaws in songs.

I pay the bills as a copy editor, so I daresay I come into contact with this species more regularly than average folk do. I can’t tell you how many colleagues I’ve had over the years who delight in pointing out stuff like this:

The redundancy in Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die”: “This ever-changing world in which we live in …” (Now, there are some who claim that Macca really says “in which we’re livin’,” and to those I say this: I’ve heard the song roughly 3,000 times. And I think you’re wrong.)

The failure to deploy the subjunctive in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound”: “Homeward bound … I wish I was …”

More redundancy, courtesy of John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town”: “No, I cannot forget from where it is that I come from …”

You get the picture. While I certainly have my peeves — oh, lordy, do I have my peeves — this was never really one of them. I’ve never had the expectation that lyrics should be paragons of precise grammar. To me, they serve two functions: to communicate ideas and images and to fit, sonically, with the accompanying music. I’m willing to forgive much under the auspices of sonic Jell-o.

It was strange, then, to find myself distracted a few hours ago by The Doors’ “Touch Me.” I was driving home and heard, not for the first time, “… till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.”

It’s easy enough to see why Jim Morrison chose the words he did. They rhyme. Still, I tried to come up with something just as good that was also grammatical. The closest I got was “the land falls in the sea for you and me,” which isn’t close at all. What Jim Morrison lacked in objective pronouns he more than made up for in lyricism. He gets a pass.

So does Ken Stringfellow, whose loveliest song (in my opinion), “Death of a City,” includes this bit:

“He walks right through you and I now, silently making his usual rounds …” Stringfellow didn’t need the pronoun for his rhyme (now/rounds), and I suspect that he’s smart enough to know the proper grammar. My guess is that he simply liked this choice better in the full context of ideas and music. I’m inclined to agree. Send me to hell if you must.

As the story of Joe Biden’s open-mic cursing moves into, amazingly, its third day of being in the news cycle, we’re reminded that not all F-bombs are created equal. In what seems to pass for trenchant political debate in this country, those who are agin’ Biden have seized upon his exclamatory by suggesting that he should be assailed in much the same way that his predecessor, Dick Cheney, was criticized for using the invective on the floor of the Senate. To those folks, a simple question: Would you rather be told to go F yourself or that you’re a great F’ing person?

(It’s entirely fair to question Mr. Biden’s judgment. It’s a hot mic. You’re two feet away. Show some restraint, eh?)

Now, fair warning: We’re going to actually employ the word in question in the next little bit. If that will upset you, go here for some wholesome fun.

Seriously, we’re going to use the word.

I’m not lying.

Go elsewhere if this will be a problem.

Are you gone?

Are you still with us?

Here we go.

This excellent video outlines the various applications of the F-bomb. A speaker who wisely chooses his/her words and knows their various parts of speech is much better prepared for the rigors of oratory.

On that note, a friend of mine once showed me a grammar test that included the following exercise:

Identify the parts of speech in the following sentence: That fucking fucker is fucking fucked — fuck him!

(For the record, relative pronoun, adjective, noun, verb, adverb, predicate adjective, interjection)

As for the expletive crisis that has gripped our country, I’d propose a cooling-off period. Why don’t we all chill the fuck out and turn our attention to more pressing issues?

A friend of mine, author R.J. Keller, recommended this article over the weekend and in so doing noted her own struggles with hyphenation. (It’s OK for me to reveal that, isn’t it, R.J.?)

That caught my attention for the opposite reason: I love hyphens. And it’s not a sick, dirty, abusive love, either. It’s a good, clean, honorable love born of a compulsion to bring order to disorder (or, in many cases, to bring pedanticism to the perfectly understandable).

Long before I ever wrote a novel, I made my bones as a copy editor. And while I love to stand back in admiration at a sleek, stylish sentence — or, better yet, to write one — I will forever thrill at getting my hands greasy by tearing out the component parts and examining them. I think that partly explains why as much as I enjoy writing, I enjoy rewriting even more.

At any rate, given R.J.’s determination to get the better of hyphens, I felt compelled to share with her a style ruling I made a couple of years ago at my day job. The ruling was inspired by another friend, the estimable John McIntyre, who instituted a similar guideline at the Baltimore Sun. It’s meant to comfortably straddle two divergent approaches to hyphenation: the traditional view, which holds that rigid deployment of the little scamp of a mark ensures clarity even if it seems a bit stuffy, and the more modern view, which eschews the hyphen unless its omission would somehow compromise readability.

Here, then, is that style codification. Grab your popcorn:

Compound modifiers and hyphens

This is a grammatical issue that leads to wild inconsistency in the stories we publish. The general movement these days, judging from our copy (wire and locally produced), is to eschew hyphens in compound modifiers unless ambiguity would result. The problem with that approach is in perception: One person’s clarity is another’s ambiguity.

Accordingly, we’re instituting some guidelines that, we hope, will round us into form:

First, be sure you’re actually dealing with a compound modifier and not a single adjective modifying a noun phrase. That’s dangerously gobbledygookish, so here’s an example: One might be tempted to hyphenate “grilled cheese sandwich,” but a closer examination makes it clear that the cheese sandwich (there’s your noun phrase) is being grilled, not the cheese inside the sandwich. Verdict: not a compound modifier, and therefore no hyphen.

Once you’re sure you’ve hooked a compound, look in the AP stylebook for an explicit ruling on the specific compound in question. The general rule, as outlined in the punctuation section, is far less reliable — so much so that even AP’s own writers and editors follow it inconsistently, making it almost useless.

If you don’t find the compound in the AP stylebook, check the dictionary (Webster’s New World College Edition), which governs everything AP doesn’t. The dictionary, for example, calls for a hyphen in “ice cream” as a compound modifier (e.g., “ice-cream cone”). While that might strike you as overly rigid, hyphenate away. Because you know what happens once we start disregarding the dictionary willy-nilly: collapsing schools, anarchy, cats and dogs living together in sin and other enormities too horrible to mention.

So, let’s say for argument’s sake that you haven’t found satisfaction from AP or the dictionary. Here’s how you arrive at a solution:

In noun-noun combinations (stream access bill, coalbed methane drilling, etc.), no hyphen. This will come up a lot with legislation and other government-related (!) stuff.

In adjective-noun or noun-adjective combinations (small-arms fire, right-field fence, time-consuming task, AIDS-related complications, user-friendly, etc.), use a hyphen, as do those compounds backloaded into a sentence (the man is well-known, her advice is well-regarded, he is quick-witted, etc.)

Here comes a mouthful: In any compound modifier of three or more words in which at least one is an adjective, use the hyphens throughout. For example: property-tax-related bills (not property tax-related bills).

In any case where ambiguity is evident, regardless of combination, use the hyphen. No amount of codification will eliminate the need for writers and editors to practice discretion. And thank goodness for that, or else we’re all filling out job applications at Albertsons (no apostrophe).

One last hint: It’s OK to embrace grammatical avoidance, that deft little maneuver that involves writing around a problem. Sometimes, it’s better to find a new construction than to untangle a pile-up of modifiers. “He is awaiting trial on charges of immigration fraud” sounds a lot less stilted than “He is awaiting trial on immigration fraud charges.” (And never mind the extra words; we’re talking about clarity here, not brevity.)

As ever, a relatively small number of adjective-noun compounds, owing to common usage, will remain un-hyphenated: middle school, high school, real estate, civil rights, mental health, natural gas. We will err on the restrictive side in granting these exceptions, however. The guiding principle is that a hyphen will almost never inhibit clarity, while the absence of one can certainly lead to unclear writing and unhealthy relations between felines and canines, both of which are outcomes we should all strive to avoid.

Finally, this by no means covers all possibilities and combinations. We’ll just grapple with the ones that don’t neatly fall into categories as they come up.

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