slow-news day: hyphens & self-help


Self-HelpSpeedBump11-11-06 Speed Bump, by Dave Coverly, 11-11-06 edition

The topic of today’s Speed Bump cartoon serendipitously resolved my inner debate over whether to take shlep on a Saturday journey into linguisitcs.  This little detour began three days ago, when a searcher asked Google “is ‘self help’ hyphenated“.  There were almost 37,000 results, and the first two were links to our recent shlep nomenclature posting, which brought the querist to our humble weblog and brought the question to our attention.

If the searcher found an answer here, it was by example rather than prescription or proscription.  Whether using the term as a noun or an adjective, your Editor has always employed a hyphen when combining the words “self” and “help” in order to denote “the acquiring of information or the solving of one’s problems . . . without the direct supervision of professionals or experts.”  

hyphenKeyN  That usage was quickly (and cursorily) confirmed, when I checked two other top Google results (one from the University of Alabama in Hunstville and the other from the California library), which both gave the term “self-help” as examples of the correct usage of hyphens.   Furthermore, my study of German a few decades ago, reminded me that the union of “self/Selbst” and “help/Hilfe” would become the compound word “Selbsthilfe” in that language, underscoring my belief that “self” and “help” needed to be linked, if the full meaning were to be communicated adequately. 

Satisfied that my customary practice was correct, I went to bed Wednesday night confident that “self help” is incorrect [as, by analogy, is “self represented”].  However, that confidence was soon shaken.

It was with some annoyance, you see, that I kept finding the hyphen-less terms “self represented” and “self representation” in judicial documents I was reading for the Thursday posting about a pro se defendant in Australia.  By Friday morning, annoyance had turned to curiosity and obsession, and I was determined to get to the bottom of this hyphen issue — and was worried that my Wednesday research had been unfortunately incomplete, because limited to sources from the USA.

After much surfing and clicking, I must report that the nations of the British Commonwealth have considerably muddied the “self-help-hyphen” question.  Although they are more than willing to add extraneous “u’s” to all sorts of words, they have apparently decided to conserve on ink by the somewhat erratic elimination of the hyphen.  More precisely, Australians tend to say “self help” whether the term is being used as an adjective or as a noun.  Moreover, they speak of “self representation” and “self represented litigants.” 

UKmap The British, on the other hand, appear to use a hyphen consistently for the adjectival phrase “self-help” or “self-represented” (see here and there), while leaving it out when “self help” is a noun (e.g., this organization). The Scottish appear to say “self representation“. 

Perhaps torn by cross-currents of history and geography, our Canadians friends are not always consistent.  A Canadian publishing comany, for example, speaks of “self-help books,” but calls itself a “self publishing company,” while using both “self publish” and “self-publish” as verbs, on the same webpage.   One college’s counselling webpage utilizes the hyphen-free “self help” terminology as both noun and adjective.  However, courts in Nova Scotia have a self-represented litigants project and self-help information guides, while British Columbia offers a court Self-Help Information Centre.   Meanwhile, Candians involved in the self-help law movement seem to be studiously avoiding using “self-help” and “self-representation” as nouns.

Where does this leave us?   I should have known things might get murky, when I noticed that our friends at Language Log can differ on the use of hyphens, and when the Wikipedia entry warns us that “A definite collection of hyphen rules does not exist”. That discussion goes on to say: 

“The use of the hyphen has, in general, been steadily declining, both in popular writing and in scholarly journals. Its use is almost always avoided by those who write for newspapers, for advertising copy or for labels on packaging, since they are often more concerned with visual cleanliness than semantic clarity; the words are left with spaces. However, it is still used in most (American) newspapers and magazines; hence, people remain accustomed to seeing and understanding its use. In other countries hyphens are dropped in favour of connecting the two-word compounds.” 

Now, I’m really confused.  Besides Germany, just who out there is “connecting the two-word compounds”?  For me, “self-help” works fine (following the rule that the prefix “self” takes a hyphen), and “selfhelp” beats “self help” for clarity and symbolism.   When in the USA, I believe correct usage demands the hyphen version of “self-help.”  In other English-speaking countries, I suggest always using the hyphen when you’re modifying a noun, and sneaking it in whenever possible on other occasions.  (Isn’t there already more than enough space in Australia and Canada, without creating more?  And, shouldn’t the British Isles be trying to conserve space, in case those ice caps keep melting?)

hyphenKey Finally, don’t worry: 1) at court, no judge is going to penalize you for omitting or including a hyphen, when discussing your representation status or the court’s services; if he or she does, please let shlep know; and 2) when doing searches on Google or Yahoo, and with virtually all other search engines, “self help” and “self-help” will retrieve the same results.  

p.s.  Now, I’m going to try to salvage a tiny bit of my Saturday, while avoiding the question “why does Dave Coverly say ‘Self-Help’ but not ‘Speed-Bump’?”.

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