Thursday, January 4, 2018


From a New Yorker report on Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House:

Confirming long-running news accounts, Wolff reports that Trump often retires in the early evening to his bedroom, where he has three television screens, and interrupts his viewing only to converse by telephone with his friends and cronies, some of them fellow-billionaires.
That hyphen between fellow and billionaires? I think it’s The New Yorker being The New Yorker. I see two ways to think about how the noun fellow functions in the phrase fellow-billionaires.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the noun fellow can be used to form “a virtually unlimited number of compounds.” The dictionary calls the word (“designating a person or thing that belongs to the same class or category as another specified person or thing”) an “appositive, passing into adj.” An appositive is a noun or pronoun that stands next to and serves to identify another noun. In the movie title My Friend Irma, for instance, Irma is an appositive. The OED notes that compounds formed with fellow
are usually formed with a hyphen or as two words, although in early use single word forms also occur. From the 20th cent. formation as two words is more common. [My emphasis.]
And lookit: the OED has a 2008 citation from The New Yorker with the same fusty hyphen: “Pearl has been enlisted . . . to spy on her fellow-employees.”

While the OED identifies fellow as an appositive, Merriam-Webster has the word as “noun, often attributive.” An attributive noun is one that modifies another noun and functions as an adjective. Think apple pie or sock drawer. If one thinks of fellow as an attributive noun, a hyphen looks more than a little strange. No one eats apple-pie, though some people insist on having everything in apple-pie order, even the sock drawer, in which case the pie has been turned into a phrasal adjective. Fellow-billionaires looks as odd to me as fellow-Americans would.

What’s odder still, for me, is trying to understand how one might decide between between seeing fellow as an appositive and seeing it as an attributive. Maybe a fellow thousandaire can help.

Related posts
Bad hyphens, unhelpful abbreviations : “Every generation hyphenates the way it wants to” : Got hyphens? : The Hammacher Schlemmer crazy making hyphen shortage problem : Living on hyphens : Mr. Hyphen and e-mail : Mr. Hyphen and Mr. Faulkner : One more from Mr. Hyphen : Phrasal-adjective punctuation

[It hit me only after writing this post: The New Yorker seems to be following H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2nd ed.), which offers a puzzling take on fellow: “All the combinations of f. with a noun (except f.-feeling, for which see below) would be best written as two separate words without hyphen, and they all are sometimes so written. But, owing to the mistaken notion that words often used in juxtaposition must be hyphened, the more familiar combinations are so often seen with the hyphen that they now look queer and old-fashioned without it.” That’s hardly the case in 2018. At any rate, Fowler’s recommended forms seem arbitrary: a hyphen for fellow-countryman, no hyphen for fellow traveller. There’s no recommendation for fellow and billionaire.]

comments: 8

The Arthurian said...

A hyphen post! Exactly what I was looking for. I just ran across this headline:
"Kmart to pay $32.3M to settle health care-related whistleblower case".

I'm fine with "health care". But when I see "health care-related" I read it as "health [pause] care-related" which I find obviously wrong. I would rather have it as "health-care related".

(I don't like "health-care-related"; "healthcare-related" would be better.)

My preferences in such matters affect my writing and my ability to convey, and I do spend time pondering hyphens [pause] Usually private time.


In your first excerpt above, and in your first following paragraph, I completely missed the problem with "fellow-billionaires", possibly due to a word-wrap before "billionaires" in each case. All on one line, "fellow-employees" does strike me as incorrect. Somehow, it conveys a little too much camaraderie.

You quote Fowler: "... owing to the mistaken notion that words often used in juxtaposition must be hyphened ..." The concept is striking. People have mistaken notions like that all the time, and not only about hyphening. (Bad economics thrives on them.)

I also like the use of the word "notion" for an idea that's not very good.

Thank you for defining terms (appositive, attributive). If an attributive noun identifies an attribute or property of another noun... and an appositive identifies another noun, how does one decide between between seeing fellow as an appositive and seeing it as an attributive? [pause] You got me.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, “health care-related” is bad. The entry on phrasal adjectives in Garner’s Modern English Usage covers those cases: “When the first or last element in a phrasal adjective is part of a compound noun, it too needs to be hyphenated.” Health care or healthcare? Garner says that single word is “well on its way” and “seems inevitable.” “Healthcare-related” is simpler than “health-care-related.”

Just to clarify: I don’t think “fellow-billionaires” is wrong. It’s just odd. I wrote about it because it instantly looked so strange to me.

Chris said...

I think "fellow-billionaires" is ridiculously pedantic. Would the New Yorker hyphenate "his other-children"?

Michael Leddy said...

Ha! I’ve begun to think that the magazine’s famed copyediting is sometimes merely curmudgeonly, not smart. The New Yorker, by the way, sometimes spells copyediting with a hyphen, sometimes with a space.

misterbagman said...

I was most immediately put in mind of "fellow-travelers," but that may just be my typical, near-reflexive tendency to free-associate. And the hyphen is likely inappropriate anyway.

In vaguely related news, this fun tweet popped up in my timeline:

Michael Leddy said...

That catalogue mistake is pretty amusing. I wondered about my own use of fellow and searched OCA. I found “fellow bystander,” “fellow traveler,” “fellow soldiers,” and others, all without a hyphen. I also found “fellow-cinematographer Gregg Toland,” and took the hyphen out. Why not?

Chris said...

I can see making a case for hyphenating "fellow-travelers" when it's an idiom.

"I suspect that some of my fellow travelers on this train are fellow-travelers."

Michael Leddy said...

That’s wonderful. :)