I have a number of idiosyncrasies in the way that I write: I like putting brackets within brackets – sometimes three or four levels deep; I put spaces around ellipses and forward slashes (if I even use a forward slash at all – I prefer not to – I think it looks inelegant as a symbol for ‘or’); and when I write dates I only use numerals for the year – the rest I write in full words.
But probably the most prominent of my idiosyncrasies is the way I use hyphens. In fact I’ve already done it several times in this post. I use hyphens where others might use commas or semicolons to mark a separate, but related, idea to the main sentence.
I think of it as a self-interruption – I’m interrupting my own comment. I did it just then. Some people would say that I should be using a semicolon there. However, I do use semicolons as well as hyphens, but I use them for different expressions. I use a semicolon when the second idea that I’m introducing is not intended to seem like an interjection to the first – I’m not trying to adjust what I previously said – I’m just trying to add to it. I use a hyphen when I’m trying to mimic in writing an expression I use in speech. So for example, I would use a semicolon in:
‘Ben was very tall; he was the tallest in his class.’
But I’d use a hyphen in:
‘Ben was very tall – the tallest in his class, in fact.’
The second of these examples makes it seem more like the second idea is an adjustment to the first. I find it reads more like a natural conversation. The first reads slower.
Similarly, some people would say that I should be using commas where sometimes I use hyphens. But again, I use hyphens for the sense of self-interruption. So for example, I would write:
‘Ben was the tallest in his class – which was odd, because he was about average height compared to the general population.’
If the first hyphen here were a comma, it would make the second part of the sentence seem like the main idea of the sentence. The hyphen makes the second idea seem more like a tangent – an interrupting thought that is not the main point.
I call this an idiosyncrasy, but of course lots of people use hyphens in this way – I think more and more people are – I’m sure this was less common ten years ago. Nevertheless it’s still thought of by many as being grammatically incorrect. I think even if at one point it was ‘officially’ grammatically incorrect, the hyphen is so useful and versatile when used in this way that we should use it, and change the ‘official’ rules of grammar to allow for it.