Level(-)headedness

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See Plethoric Pundigrions1 for screen shots showing a version of Microsoft Word (I don’t know which one) that for levelheaded suggests correcting it to level-headed and for level-headed suggests correcting it to levelheaded. That should give rise to a frustrating morning of trying to finalize the draft, shouldn’t it?

1 Hat tip to Bob Ladd.

You will probably want to know what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says about what the right answer is; and those who yearn not just for authority but for actual authoritarianism will be disappointed that it reports, “It is an area where we find a great deal of variation” (p. 1760, in the section on lexical hyphens).

If you think that nonetheless an answer should be stipulated, then go ahead and make up a stipulation. What The Cambridge Grammar is telling you is that you won’t have any basis for it. You might just as well have stipulated the opposite. Educated usage will not always match your stipulation (thus showing it to be a good one), and it won’t always fail to match.

There are two general tendencies, though. (1) The longer a compound has been in use, the more likely it is to have started being written without a hyphen. (2) American English is a bit less likely to favor hyphenating than British English is. Apart from those two rules of thumb, you are out there working with no net, trying to follow the shifting tendencies in the usage of other people. I think I would recommend simply finding a recent use of the term in the writing of an author whose work you really like to read, and following that. If Stephen King describes someone as levelheaded, and you like reading Stephen King, then write levelheaded. Nothing much will hang on it. Not everyone will agree with you (and Word may even disagree with itself), but hey, it’s a free country.

Does that make me sound like an anarchist? I hope not. I believe there are thousands of quite strict constraints on Standard English, constraints such that you would be ill-advised to violate, because you would look like a gormless illiterate. All I’m saying is that whether or not to hyphenate a compound like level(-)headed is not one of the areas of English in which a strict and widely respected constraint holds.

With some misgivings (the above will not make me popular with those who long for stern grammatical parenting) I have left comments open below. But please hyphenate correctly.



46 Comments

  1. Steve Harris said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:17 am

    My specialty is general relativity. [Don’t brag, Steve. Nobody likes a gloater. —GKP] Near about every paragraph in one of my papers uses the word “spacetime”. Except that in some British journals, it comes out as “space-time”. That hyphenated usage strikes me as fustian (though I’m a fan of hyphenating adjective-noun phrases used attributively).

    I’m American, started reading about spacetimes in the late 60s (precious high school student–or is that high-school student?)

  2. aaron said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:10 am

    Personally I just follow Joyce in smashing together anyold words that happen to be next to oneanother.

  3. Aaron Toivo said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:25 am

    Hyphens aren’t even the most interesting thing about “space(-)time”. Rather, it’s the compound’s semantic type: English is not much given to dvandva compounds, outside of our number system, but this is a very nice example of one. Much more normal for our language would be if “spacetime” meant a type or instance of time, like “dinnertime” does.

    Sorry to go off-topic so early in the comments, it just abruptly struck me.

  4. Chargone said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    Word 97 liked to make loops like that with its grammar checker. that was… annoying. not really a problem, just annoying.

    As for spacetime, space-time, whatever…
    I’ve seen it written as space/time fairly often.
    Also: Firefox likes hyphens in it.

    I don’t see hyphenated compounds much. Usually someone trying to make a point with regards to their surnames. Most of the time it seems far more likely to just write the thing as two separate words, unless it’s well established as being a single compound word. Personally, i think this is because many people find hyphens evil and confusing. (or possibly confusing and evil). mind you, i base this on absolutely nothing what-so-ever (phrases like that which are meaningful only as a unit get hyphenated fairly often, on the other hand., or not. never mashed together as one word though)

    yeah, not much point to this comment :)

  5. Dougal Stanton said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    @Chargone,

    You step too far with “phrases like [what-so-ever] which are meaningful only as a unit get hyphenated fairly often, on the other hand., or not. never mashed together as one word though”. There are plenty of hits for whatsoever, and it’s how I would usually spell it.

    I tend to be keener towards over-the-top (!) compounds when I’ve been doing a lot of legal reading/writing. Aforesaids and aforementioneds and … well, my mind is blank right now. It feels like entering into the spirit of things to write like that. But writing the same way about mathematics or baking would seem wrong. :-)

  6. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 6:05 am

    In my PhD thesis, I wrote “space–time” with an en-dash. I don’t know what Word would think of that.

    Geoff: I liked the way you contrasted “ill-advised” (rarely seen without hyphen) and “ill-iterate” (where the hyphen is rare) in one sentence! :)

  7. xyzzyva said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    @Eugene,

    I may be missing a layer of sarcasm or something, but you really can’t hyphenate “illiterate” that way, because it’s not a compound. If you were to hyphenate it, it’d have to be “il-literate”. And that just looks funky… [Yes, I don’t think Eugene would dream of writing *ill-iterate. He was musing on two kinds of hyphen, the lexical ones (which the dictionary requires) and the soft ones (which are popped in to help line-breaking), and enjoying the close proximity of ill-advised (where the lexical hyphen seems obligatory) with illiterate (where a soft hyphen after ill would be quite unthinkable). —GKP]

    On a personal note: I enjoy compounds written clearly as such, with at very least a hyphen, but ideally crammed right together.

    But then again I wish English followed its germaniccousins in cramming entire nounphrases together, too.

  8. CS Clark said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 6:30 am

    Although it’s a green underline, drilling down in 2003 shows it to be a suggested style change rather than grammar. Its clippy ‘explanation’ is, more or less, ‘Are you sure? ‘Cause maybe you want to try this’ rather than YOU’RE BREAKING THE RULES.

    I too would en-dash space–time. Word seems fine with it.

  9. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    My instinct would be to write “level headed”, but that may be influenced by my publication’s style guide, which strongly disfavours hyphens.

  10. Cecily said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 6:53 am

    Another factor that may contribute to the demise of hyphens is the way words wrap.

    For example, I may be happy for “level-” to appear at the end of one line and “headed” at the start of another, but I certainly don’t want “co-ordinate” to do likewise. However, there are still some applications that make it difficult or even impossible to enter a non-breaking hyphen, making a hyphenless version more attractive.

  11. a.y. mous said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    Using the very handy MWSnap (no affiliation. Just a happy user) tool, I measured the dashes. The one in the first suggestion is about 10 pixels wide which is the same width as the ‘m’ in ‘Grammar’ in the second suggestion. The actual use measured about 6 pixels, which is about equal to the ‘n’ in ‘Ignore’.

    So, hyphen, en-dash, em-dash. You choose. All I know is the space-time is not only curved, in fact, it is totally bent.

  12. Benvenuto said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    I’ll add this post to my little list of instructive observations for diehard prescriptivists. One day they will see reason…

  13. Chargone said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:20 am

    @ Dougal Stanton
    obviously i wasn’t as clear as i thought. i was referring only to things i was aware of having encountered, not things that exist total :)

  14. Plegmund said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:55 am

    Surely everyone who has been properly educated by one of those fine old teachers we used to have realises that ‘levelheaded’ is passive and therefore deprecated???

    [(myl) Should we conclude that those teachers succeeded in levelheading you?]

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    Rock and roll confirmation of Ginger Yellow’s instincts:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_Headed.

  16. language hat said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    This is not a matter of grammar at all, in any sense I am aware of. It is a matter of spelling, and for spelling we have dictionaries. In my editing work (and in my own writing, out of convenience and habit) I would automatically make this one word, levelheaded, not because that is “correct” (still less “grammatical”) but because that is what is found in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which is the mandated authority for virtually all my edit jobs. The vital thing in a published work is consistency (unless, of course, you’re T. E. Lawrence [scroll down]), and the only way to achieve consistency is to pick an authority and stick to it. This has nothing to do with prescriptivism.

  17. Kylopod said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    I think the spell checkers (the ones that put squiggly lines under words as you’re writing) have influenced me toward the habit of writing “openminded” instead of “open-minded.” I’m an American, though the non-hyphenated (or is it nonhyphenated?) version looks wrong to me somehow.

    One particularly confusing dichotomy involves the word “self-conscious.” Normally, it is written with a hyphen. But when you want to turn it into an adverb by adding -ly, that’s where the problems start, and it gets even knottier when you want to negate it with un-. Thus, I have seen people write unselfconsciously even though most people do not write selfconscious. If you were being perfectly consistent, you would write unself-consciously, but for some reason most people are uncomfortable using that form, and un-self-consciously isn’t far behind.

  18. jimroberts said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    Does the sentence containing “constraints such that if you would be ill-advised to violate because” comply with the constrains of Standard English? What’s the if doing in there? Or is there something missing? Or, more likely, I’m missing something, but what?

  19. Mr Punch said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    The trouble with “level-headedness” is that it might be “corrected” to “level headedness.” This would be unfortunate (sorry, Ginger Yellow) because “headedness” just isn’t a real word that means something — “levelheadedness” is not in fact a kind of headedness.

  20. Robert said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    In algebra one sometimes encounters divisors of zero (i.e. things which can be multiplied by other things to produce zero), which are known as zero divisors, or zero-divisors. The trouble comes when you want to exclude them, so you say something like “Let a be a non-zero-divisor”. This is a mess. However, “non-zero divisor” is even worse. David Eisenbud is of Geoff’s school of thought and calls them nonzerodivisors.

  21. Troy S. said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Are hyphenations like to-day and good-bye more British or antiquarian?

  22. John said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    First off, it’s “coördinate.” There’s no need for a hyphen between a prefix and a stem. (Or is there? Examples?) Who’s for the dieresis?

    Second, the described attitude of increased usage leading to dehyphenation was William Safire’s long-standing policy.

  23. D.O. said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    My Word does not suggest changing any of the two spellings. Have it read CGEL while I was asleep?

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    I was putting Barbara Cartland’s Desire in the Desert on the shop shelf recently, and kept it aside for its sheer hilarious ghastliness. It shows how out of touch Cartland was, that in 1989 she hyphenated “bed-room”, “to-day”, “race-course”, “ante-room”, “Good-morning”, “good-bye”, “week-end”, “set-back”, “to-morrow”, and many similar.

  25. Morten Jonsson said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    Webster’s Collegiate has “good-bye.” It looks bizarre to me, and maybe in the next edition it will change. But for now, that’s what it says, so that’s what I do.

    With compounds like “levelheaded,” I go by what Webster’s does; if they’re not in there, I figure that they’re not established enough to be run together, so I hyphenate them. It’s not scientific, but it saves worrying too much.

  26. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    How old was Barbara Cartland in 1989? You must allow a writer to persist in the habits of their youth. Someone or other — I can’t remember who — once said: “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.”

  27. Lugubert said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

    John,
    Coördinate (for which my Firefox add-in suggests for example Coordinate and Co-ordinate) looks as weird to for example Germans and us Swedes as do for example Motörhead, Häagen and Brüno. I have to look twice not to internally pronounce our hijacked letters the way they are meant to be.

  28. Steve Harris said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

    @John:
    I’ve a always liked the dieresis, if for no other reason than the obscurity of the term. But I can’t think of any common examples other than coördinate. If I go into a room, leave it, and then return, I’ve re-entered the room; I don’t think I’d spell it with a dieresis, but I have no justification for that reluctance. Are there any other examples in use, even by those favoring slight archaisms?

    How do we distinguish recreation (remaking something) from recreation (having fun)? I think with hyphen, re-creation, if we care enough to make a distinguished spelling. So re- seems to me to be a sometimes hyphen-taking prefix, along with non-.

  29. Steve Harris said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    Zoöphagous!

  30. richard said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    A favorite t-shirt of my youth said, on the front, “Should ‘anal-retentive’ have a hyphen?” and, on the back, “Should ‘anal retentive’ have a hyphen?”
    OK, so my youth was, by and large, dull. So sue me.
    Incidentally, I just spent several minutes trying to decide if “on the back” should be preceded with a comma or not.

  31. Robert Young said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    While writing about superannuation a few years ago, I had the same problem with ‘drawdown’ and ‘draw down’.

  32. Oskar said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

    @Steve Harris: The only common use of dieresis (outside of The New Yorker) I can think of is the name Zoë, although I suppose it’s more common today to either just skip the two dots or spell it with a y (Zoey or Zooey).

    I really hate it when people spell coöperate with a dieresis, because I’m Swedish, and in Swedish, ö is a letter on its own and it’s and it’s not at all pronounced like like an o (it sounds approximately like the u in burn), so “coöperate” just looks plain weird.

  33. Nathan Myers said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    “Leveledheadness”, surely?

    Many people feel compelled to write “no-one”, evidently shying from “noone” but dissatisfied with “no one”. I haven’t encountered “noöne” yet, and don’t expect to, but have not given up hope.

  34. Nathan Myers said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

    Robert Young: I am old enough that I still read “drawdown” as a noun and “draw down” as a verb. Likewise for “backup”, “putdown”, and indeed most verb[up|down|around|over]. Is this (still?) enforced in style guides anywhere?

  35. Nanani said,

    March 3, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

    How did comments get this far without a reference to the classic and topical xkcd? http://xkcd.com/37/

    Is this a level headed-thread?

  36. Ray Girvan said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 12:34 am

    Simon Cauchi: How old was Barbara Cartland in 1989? You must allow a writer to persist in the habits of their youth.

    She was 88. But the book was for a contemporary readership, and the copy-editor should have overridden anything archaic enough to be weird. Maybe she was such a cash-cow that the publisher didn’t want to risk losing her by standing up to her.

  37. Nicholas said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 3:14 am

    @Steve Harris: “Except that in some British journals, it comes out as “space-time”. That hyphenated usage strikes me as fustian…”

    “Space-time” strikes you as a cotton-linen blend? I know we speak of the fabric of the universe, but I didn’t know we had identified the fibres.

  38. language hat said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    I can’t think of any common examples other than coördinate.

    That is not a “common example”; no one uses it but the New Yorker (and, apparently, John, above). The dieresis is not really used in contemporary English (aside from the occasional Zoë, as Oskar says, and proper names are often anomalous).

    I am old enough that I still read “drawdown” as a noun and “draw down” as a verb. Likewise for “backup”, “putdown”, and indeed most verb[up|down|around|over]. Is this (still?) enforced in style guides anywhere?

    Huh? This is still the rule, and you will find it in any style guide or dictionary you consult. Have you ever seen “draw down” as a noun or “drawdown” as a verb in printed matter? If so, the proofreader who let it through should be fired.

    [(myl) Searching for “drawdown” on Google News, the second item is “Chile’s Peso Extends Gains On Reconstruction Spending Outlook”, WSJ 3/4/2010: “The government has over $11 billion, from copper windfalls, in one of its offshore sovereign wealth funds. Currency market participants say the government will likely drawdown large amounts from that fund, selling those dollars on the local market, to finance reconstruction plans, including the rebuilding of damaged highways, bridges, hospitals, etc.”

    (And the WSJ is generally a well-edited outlet, in my experience. At least, typos are rare.)

    I admit, this was a lucky hit. But it’s easier to find verbal “backup” in reputable publications, e.g. “Burke Nursing Broken Finger at Reds’ Training Camp”, NYT 2/26/2010: “The Reds’ starting infield is set, but just about every bench spot is up for grabs. For Burke, he could find a way to backup just about anyone on the field.”]

  39. speedwell said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    …illiterate (where a soft hyphen after ill would be quite unthinkable…

    Not so unthinkable. I work with a database where we have version control over the records. A sort of sub-version is an “iteration”, and to create one is to “iterate” the database record. A record to which this had been done badly could be thought of as “ill-iterated.”

  40. Maria said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    I found it interesting that level-headed was flagged as a grammar mistake (green squiggly line), and levelheaded was marked as a spelling mistake.

  41. Stephen Jones said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    But the book was for a contemporary readership, and the copy-editor should have overridden anything archaic enough to be weird.

    As a new edition of Shakespeare or Spenser is not going to be read by 500 year-old ghosts in the graveyard, should the language be revised for contemporary readers?

    The vital thing in a published work is consistency (unless, of course, you’re T. E. Lawrence [scroll down]), and the only way to achieve consistency is to pick an authority and stick to it.

    Ah, the hobgoblin of small minds. Whilst mixing up British and American spelling for the same word on the same page might be considered aesthetically inadvisable, you’re going to the other extreme. Nothing wrong with using one guide for spelling (though I can see no reason not to mix and match apart from the cost of two books instead of one), but to check up what is clearly a correct spelling, which is the case of both ‘level-headed’ and ‘levelheaded’, is going too far, and if it means changing what the author wrote, is going to cause your reputation to plummet with him.

  42. Ray Girvan said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    But the book was for a contemporary readership, and the copy-editor should have overridden anything archaic enough to be weird.

    As a new edition of Shakespeare or Spenser is not going to be read by 500 year-old ghosts in the graveyard, should the language be revised for contemporary readers?

    But this wasn’t a situation of revising a historical text – this was an author writing for a genre market with a strict house style – simple contemporary English – which appears to have been waived to allow her idiosyncrasies of hyphenation.

  43. Stephen Jones said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

    which appears to have been waived to allow her idiosyncrasies of hyphenation.

    I rather suspect that the one writer sells more than all the rest of the writers in the editorial stable together.

    And what on earth is a publisher of fiction doing with a house-style? Control freakery gone mad.

  44. language hat said,

    March 4, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    Ah, the hobgoblin of small minds. Whilst mixing up British and American spelling for the same word on the same page might be considered aesthetically inadvisable, you’re going to the other extreme. Nothing wrong with using one guide for spelling (though I can see no reason not to mix and match apart from the cost of two books instead of one), but to check up what is clearly a correct spelling, which is the case of both ‘level-headed’ and ‘levelheaded’, is going too far, and if it means changing what the author wrote, is going to cause your reputation to plummet with him….

    And what on earth is a publisher of fiction doing with a house-style? Control freakery gone mad.

    You appear not to understand what copyediting is or what publishers do. I’m sorry the subject gets you so wrought up, but you really might want to learn something about it before sounding off.

  45. pjharvey said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 4:49 am

    I think the ‘eat kids free‘ sign could use a hyphen.

  46. Aaron Davies said,

    March 8, 2010 @ 1:21 am

    the (presumably edited (i’ve long since given up on trying to tell the authors here that retroactively editing posts, even to correct typos, is a violation of the norms of the blogosphere, particularly when occasioned by public comment)) sentence “I believe there are thousands of quite strict constraints on Standard English, constraints such that you would be ill-advised to violate, because you would look like a gormless illiterate.” still seems odd. it sounds like it’s about to go into one of those strange constructions discussed here previously and say “such that you would be ill-advised to violate them”, which would also be a bit off, but in a different way. perhaps the “such” will be next to vanish into night and fog…

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