The highs and lows of hyphens

I hope you’re enjoying Invalid Care in the Inquisitor series yesterday (18 May 2019, should this page happen to be the only remnant of human civilisation available to a future alien historian).  The remainder of May sees a Times Quick Cryptic from Pedro on 23 May, while I’m informed I have a Times Jumbo on 27 May, which I guess must be the late spring bank holiday in the UK.  Plus the usual Fridays in The Independent.

The puzzle this time round is from a 2013 issue of the Church Times.  Somewhat unusually it has a signalled theme.  My original version has the two thematic entries repeated in each relevant clue, but Don chose to shorten the clues and haul the thematic element on to a line of its own.  If you go to the Church Times website you’ll find that they have the wrong grid, so stick with me.

Somewhere this week I stumbled on a debate about the indication of hyphens in barred puzzles such as Azed or Beelzebub.  The issue was that while phrases are indicated by “(6, 2 words)”, a word such as TOM-TOM would appear simply as “(6)”.

I can’t speak for the Azed series, of course, but I do know what transpired with Beelzebub.  When I came on board, the style was to use “(6, hyphenated)”, thus falling somewhere between the two.  I argued we should drop the “hyphenated” – there was limited space, and adding a 10-letter word to several clues wasn’t helping.  I could (in the TOM-TOM case) have said “(3-3)”, but this brought us into line with Azed.

Hyphens are tricky things.  Some years ago, someone showed me the then spell-checker on Word responding to the word “homemade”, recommending hyphenation.  On you type, but looking back you note that “home-made” is tagged as an error – and now Word is recommending removing the hyphen. 

I also know of one outlet where the crossword (by sticking to a specific dictionary) hyphenates words that the outlet’s house-style says should be one word (and vice versa), and, indeed, since dictionaries do disagree about whether some words should be hyphenated, this isn’t perhaps so unusual.  Chambers – having had a clear-out (clearout?) of hyphens at some point – actually has different editions saying different things.

Semantic items can come in several variants anyway: commonsense, common-sense or common sense, for example.  So perhaps taking the stance that the presence of a hyphen means that we consider the resulting conjunction of elements a single entity isn’t so hard to understand.

Multi-word phrases seem more cut and dried, though the “common sense” example shows that matters aren’t perfect.  Very occasionally you run into an interesting situation.  How would you enumerate this clue:

Attack filament in the skin

The solution consists of the letters S E T O N.

It’s easy to say it would be an editorial decision, but the setter has to make a choice when submitting the puzzle, and mine would be “(5, 2 words)”.  This would be on the grounds that it’s important to note that a multiple word answer is in there somewhere .  Meanwhile the presence of the uncommon medical term in the single-word option means that this is probably a barred puzzle, so “(3,2)” is less likely.

And now I must dash off…


  1. A very useful dicussion of hyphens, thanks.
    I tend to simply follow house style but accept the current Chambers for guidance,

  2. Mon 27 May is indeed a Bank Holiday.
    Re hyphens, I heard it commented once that they have a shelf life of about twenty years before they disappear and the word begins to appear usually without one.

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