Acting on an email complaint from a single reader, Amazon withdrew this e-book from circulation for including one hundred hyphenated words in a novel of 90,000 words. At approximately 300 pages, that makes one hyphenated word every third page. Seriously?
Why would Amazon suffer a panic attack rather than stand by its author? Prior to publication, Graeme Reynolds, author of Werewolf novel High Moor 2: Moonstruck, had paid a thousand pounds for professional editing. He had already received more than a hundred positive reviews on Amazon before the distributor received the complaint. The company then contacted the unfortunate author to advise that his book would be withdrawn because it contained too many hyphens. In Amazon’s official-ese, he was told ‘this significantly impacts the readability of your book’. Amazon went on to inform Mr Reynolds that ‘we have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers’.
Leaving aside the ugliness of such clumsy sentences, not to mention their ambiguity, the statement by Amazon appears to be disingenuous at the very least. What exactly is this ‘combined impact’? Do they mean their combined readership? Or is the motivation more likely to be anxiety on the part of a global distributor hoping to avoid the tiniest hint of criticism? If so, they miscalculated.
Amazon, using more managerialist language, further explained to Mr Reynolds: ‘As quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience, we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected… Once you correct hyphenated words, please republish your book and make it available for sale.’
Amazon chose to act not as a secondary editor but as a censor, though hardly out of concern for public morality or literary integrity. Advice from lawyers and insurers would be higher on the Amazon list of priorities. So they jumped at this one opinionated email without reference to the perfectly acceptable practice of using hyphens in English to join two related words. Egregious examples of Reynolds’ use of hyphens includes ‘razor-filled muzzle’ and ‘brown-furred monster’. Unsurprisingly, Amazon has since received many complaints about the unfairness of this publishing suppression, far outweighing the initial excuse for withdrawal. Their tactic backfired. Amazon now looks even more foolish, rather than the responsible distributor it purports to be.
What exactly has the poor old hyphen done to deserve such a teacup-storm anyway? It’s a perfectly normal tool to link or to form compound words for clarity and to prevent confusion, especially where a short phrase consists of compound adjectives or numbers: e.g. thirty-odd people, re-cover, pre-Christian, un-American, second-hand, post-1945, neo-Nazi, anti-Communist, sub-prime loans.
We also use the hyphen where two vowels meet as the last and first letters respectively: e.g. anti-intellectual, pre-eminent, de-emphasise, re-use. And speakers and writers of English have long deployed the humble hyphen when two nouns or two adjectives have equal status: e.g. tenant-farmer, owner-driver, hocus-pocus, city-state, bitter-sweet, colour-blind, red-hot, accident-prone.
So it looks like the company founded by Jeff Bezos, and named after a big exotic river rather than fearless female warriors, has bungled in its risk aversion and instead created an episode of absurdity on a par with any Evelyn Waugh farce.
What next? Will the clumsy distribution giant lurch with hammy fists at isolated complaints about excess adverbs? Will it lunge at the misuse of gerunds?
Or will the bungling behemoth confine its grand inquisitor searches to a more manageable task easier for algorithms, namely seeking out deviants from arbitrary standards of punctuation? Lookout semicolons—you’re next.
Not long ago I attended a meeting where the chairperson spoke about an information forum. Then he went on to describe more than one forum; except he said ‘fora’. I assumed he was making a joke, being ironic or just poking fun at pointless pedantry. Nope. He was serious. ‘It’s the plural form,’ he announced, dispelling any doubts about his lack of mirth. A scholar of Latin he was not, just a stickler for a non-rule. Wherefore this absurd assumption that ‘um’ endings must be Latinised into an ‘a’ for plurals?
I’m all for logic but this is not logical. Speakers of English in the twenty-first century no more use ‘fora’ for forums than we use ‘alba’ for albums. Nobody says ‘acquaria,’ ‘stadia,’ ‘conundra,’ ‘capsica,’ ‘plectra’ or ‘auditoria,’ unless we’re making a joke — or asking for a smack over the head.
But I must face up to my own logical inconsistency. I do prefer ‘millennia’ to millenniums and ‘symposia’ to symposiums. Also I favour ‘candelabra’ and ‘criteria’. I’m still on the fence about old-fashioned forms such as ‘consortia,’ ‘memoranda,’ ‘referenda,’ ‘spectra,’ ‘crematoria’ and ‘compendia’. I would never presume to correct anyone for using the common ‘s’ ending. In written form I find alternative ways to describe such troublesome plurals. This dichotomy may have its origins in a generational shift but more likely I’m just stubborn about abandoning archaisms. I suspect I’m not the only one. ‘Atria,’ ‘quora,’ ‘ultimata’ and ‘sanatoria’ sound ridiculous to our ears but I still prefer to use ‘honoraria,’ ‘curricula,’ ‘errata’ and ‘moratoria’. It’s not easy to let old habits go.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay ‘Self-Reliance’ (1841) famously said: ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’. Nobody wants to be thought foolish or a language hobgoblin. So does it really matter if most speakers of English don’t realise that ‘data’ used to be only the plural form of ‘datum,’ but now it’s used as both singular and plural? To cling to outdated Latin singular forms like ‘agendum’ does seem hobgoblinish. Common words in English derived from Latin might once have taken the ‘a’ ending for plurals but ‘asylums,’ ‘minimums,’ ‘harmoniums,’ ‘mausoleums,’ ‘serums’ and ‘museums’ are now common plurals for English speakers.
What is our authority? As usual our mother tongue doesn’t have one. Dictionaries reflect, rather than dictate, usage. A more reliable mentor is the style guide. Almost all English-language newspapers have these. Regarding tricky plurals, such guides generally distinguish between less common (e.g. scientific, medical or legal) Latin-derived plurals that require the ‘a’ ending and those commonly written as ‘ums’. Therefore we have ‘bacteria’ and we have ‘maximums,’ ‘dicta’ and ‘nostrums,’ ‘substrata’ and ‘solariums,’ ‘effluvia’ and ‘emporiums,’ and the word ‘labia’ peacefully co-existing with a word like ‘gymnasiums’. Some Latinate plurals will never feel comfortable, like those for ‘colosseum,’ ‘continuum,’ ‘delirium,’ ‘pandemonium’ and ‘magnum’. But if doubts arise, we can usually find an alternative.
So if this discussion has taxed your collective cerebella, go outside and pick some nasturtia, chrysathema or gerania from your arboreta or herbaria. You’ll soon recover your mental equilibria.