Grammar in the age of Brexit

This is not a statement about our views on Brexit. We shall leave that to the politicians and the Twittersphere.

While leaving the politics of Brexit aside, what we have noticed is much inconsistency and inaccuracy in the use, or non-use, of hyphenation in its reporting.

In particular, it has come to our attention that the ‘rules’ of hyphenation have not fared well in the age of Brexit.

While, in spoken English, we rely on context to determine whether hyphenation is attended, in written English, hyphenation can make the difference between what is intended and the opposite of what is intended.

Let us take the phrase of the moment: ‘no deal’.

The Guardian homepage on the morning of 22 February led with the headline ‘No deal risk’:

As written, ‘No deal risk’ refers to the absence of a ‘deal risk’, which is presumably not what the journalist intended. Rather, the first two words must be hyphenated if the headline wishes to raise awareness that there is a risk of no deal. In other words:N

No-deal risk/Risk of no deal (true)

No deal risk (false)

It is noteworthy that, within the story itself (linked from the homepage), hyphenation is correctly applied:

So, even in the same newspaper, we can find that hyphenation is randomly applied.

The other ‘no’ term to have experienced a similar fate is ‘no confidence’.

On 16 January 2019, the UK Government led by Prime Minister Theresa May won a confidence motion in the House of Commons by 325 to 306 votes.

In media reports and elsewhere, the confidence motion was typically referred to as a ‘no-confidence vote’.

Again, the hyphenation is critical. In the headline below, we can see that the hyphen is missing.

Presumably, the journalist did not intend to state that there was an absence of any confidence vote, but this is what the headline literally means.

Again, we find inconsistency in applying hyphenation, in this case, on the same page as the headline immediately above:

That is to say:

No-confidence motion/no-confidence vote (true)

Vote of no-confidence (false)

In the grand scheme of things, a lack of care around hyphenation is probably the least important aspect of Brexit. But, in its own way, this matter does perhaps mirror the more profound sense of chaos in the UK’s exit from the European Union.

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