Not-the best place for-a hyphen (2)

Here’s another example where someone didn’t find the best place for a hyphen. Someone wrote about 2 types of languages:

  • languages in which the canonical word order places the verb at the end of a clause—often called verb-final languages. One example is Japanese. Another example is German (at least in subordinate clauses; some people also analyse German main clauses as verb-final, with the verb then moving to 2nd position (‘V2’) during the derivation.)
  • languages that not verb-final. There does not seem to be an established label for these languages, so the author uses the phrase ‘nonverb-final’. 

Poor placement

The hyphenated form ‘nonverb-final’ is unfortunate. There is no hyphen between non and verb, but there is a hyphen between verb and final. So, it looks as though the link between non and verb is closer than the link between verb and final.

Yet, clearly, the intended meaning is a word order with a verb not in final position, not a word order that places a non-verb in final position. Now, verb not in final position is, arguably, logically equivalent to non-verb in final position, but the latter description puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The emphasis should be on where the verb goes (not at the end), rather than on where some non-verb goes.

Slightly better placement

A slightly better option would be ‘non-verb-final’. Al least this doesn’t make the link between non and verb look closer than the link between verb and final. But it doesn’t make it clear whether the link between verb and final is closer than the link between non and verb, or whether those 2 links are just equally close.

Better still

So, a clearer place for the hyphen would be: ‘non-verbfinal’. This conveys clearly that the link between verb and final is closer than the link between non and verb.

This last solution has one slight disadvantage. It may look inconsistent to write ‘non-verbfinal’ close to ‘verb-final’ (and by itself unhyphenated ‘verbfinal’ looks odd). If that disadvantage is considered too severe, perhaps the only solution is the (slightly pedantic sounding) ‘not verb-final’.

I have discussed before another case where poor placement of a hyphen created a bracketing paradox. Not-the best place for-a hyphen – Language Miscellany

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