Teaching English just ain't simple, period. Hyphen?

October 30, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

The surest way to drive a stake through your confidence in your mastery of the English language is to teach a course on the English language.

That's what I'm doing this fall at Hagerstown Community College (heaven help the future of higher education) and I don't know if it's making the kids smarter, but I know for a fact that it's making me stupider.

Truth be told, I'd been stupid all along, I was just too dumb to know it.

I didn't never used to think twice about English. It all came natural. (Calm down, I'm having my students correct this column later in the week; believe me, if there's a way to get paid twice for the same work, I'll find it.)

I always knowed English had a lot of rules, most all of which familiar with them I was.

Not that they are easy to convey. If you're getting college thesis papers that use the phrase "LOL," your chances of getting across the fact that the hypothetical case requires a plural verb are dismally minuscule.


And even when I think I have a clever way to get it across, my advancing age and lack of touch with the younger generation precludes it. I thought I had them with the hypothetical situation. I called it the "I wish I WERE an Oscar Mayer wiener" rule.

This prompted two questions: "What's hypothetical?" and "Who's Oscar Mayer?"


It's rough, I tell ya. I had them write a letter to their congressman on some issue they deemed important. So one guy writes - no lie - to complain that 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor are no longer large enough to meet the nation's single-serving inebriation needs.

So I reckoned I'd spot them content and make it up on grammar. What I didn't know about the grammar rules was that there were so many exceptions to them. I used to love the English language. Now I want to shoot it.

Here's what I hate about teaching. You can talk at a class for an hour and they will never hear a word that you say, but if you should mention something in passing that they can contradict, 25 hands will immediately shoot skyward.

"You never, ever place a comma before the word "and" in a series, such as red, white and blue."

"But Mr. Rowland ..."

"Don't call me Mr. Rowland. Call me T-dog."

"But T-dog, here on page 726 of the textbook, they use a comma before 'and' in a series."

"They do? Well they're wrong. I mean it's wrong. And that's Mr. T-dog to you."

To test the students on grammar, I printed out a newspaper story and changed the punctuation all around, the idea being to have them correct it. To get even with them, I made sure the story was about Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's take on the subprime mortgage crisis.

The news story included this sentence: "The commercial real-estate market remained solid, the Fed said."

Wife and book publisher Beth saw an immediate problem:

"Real estate isn't hyphenated."

"Of course it is, it's a compound, unit modifier. Besides, the Washington Post says so."

"No, real estate is a single entity, so it doesn't take a hyphen."

I proceeded to waste about six hours of my life that I will never get back, researching real estate and hyphens. An old, unabridged dictionary had it hyphenated. A grammar Web site disagreed. A newer, abridged dictionary and the AP stylebook ducked the issue altogether. The eggheads at Oxford write that the hyphen is dying out altogether, although it still has its place - for now. Meantime, real estate, as "high school," is rather understood as one entity, although not necessarily.

As to whether you hyphenate real estate when used as an adjective, our Editor in Chief of Knowledge Bob Fleenor said, "I wouldn't - but other people might."

Zounds. I need a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. No, the kid's right, make it 60.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on

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