Monday, November 10, 2014

Things to Do

In the 2013 teen sex comedy The To Do List, Aubrey Plaza plays Brandy Klark, who makes a list of college objectives to be ticked. I’m ticked about her list — and about the movie title it mimics.

Allow me to assist Brandy, a valedictorian who should have known something was missed in her list. I’ll insert a hyphen and — ta-da — ugly The To Do List turns into beautiful The To-Do List.

In the film’s title, “to do” is a compound modifier, also known as a compound adjective. A compound modifier, which is two or more words that together form an adjective, generally requires a hyphen when it comes before a noun. Examples include:

six-page article
well-known actor
17-year-old girl
smoke-free restaurant
cold-blooded killer
run-of-the-mill argument
much-needed hyphen

Let’s take a look at two sentences containing compound modifiers.

A man eating shark attacked a surfer in Australia.

The small business owner applied for a loan.

As written, the subject of the first sentence is a man dining on shark meat. The second sentence is about a business owner who is not big.

After inserting hyphens, however, we get the following:

A man-eating shark attacked a surfer in Australia.

The small-business owner applied for a loan.

Now it’s clear that a shark attacked a surfer, and that the owner of a small business applied for a loan. The hyphens show that man-eating and small-business express single concepts.

Let’s revisit the title of the film. To modifies do, and together they form a single adjective modifying the noun list. It’s not a “to list”; it’s not a “do list.” It’s a “to-do list.” To make sense, to and do must work closely. The hyphen connects them.

Some may argue that omitting the hyphen causes no ambiguity — that the meaning is understood with or without it. I disagree. I’m a hyphen fan. (A hyphenatic?) In this instance, to and do must be read as a unit to have meaning, and the hyphen allows for a “smoother” read. The lack of a hyphen could momentarily impair readability, causing a person to backtrack to make sense of what he’s just read. Critics claim hyphens are overused in compound modifiers before a noun. I believe such hyphens will never inhibit clarity, but their absence could result in confusion. How, then, can including one on a “to-do list” be a bad thing to do?

Exceptions exist, of course. Two-word noun phrases that are familiar as a single term are usually written sans hyphens.  Examples include:

real estate agent
social media marketing
home run hitter
civil rights movement

Without hyphens, meaning remains clear. Nobody would misread those four compound modifiers. That is why a high school student can be in a high-speed chase.

Of all the punctuation marks, the hyphen seems to have the fewest standards. Its use is often a matter of taste, of style. I prefer to avoid any perceived ambiguity, so more hyphens are my style. Disagree? We can have a last-minute discussion about this hot-button issue. We can’t, however, have a last minute discussion about this hot button issue.

I apologize for making such a big to-do about hyphens. Its time to proceed with a laundry list of additional complaints about a certain movie lacking a hyphen. The To Do List establishes Brandy’s strong academic pedigree by showing one award after the other during the opening credits. Well, next on my to-do list is to add a letter to her 1985 certificate. EXCELENCE would excel with an additional L.

I have to repeat the previous task, because the same error pops up on a subsequent certificate, and I’m committed to EXCELLENCE.

The 1989 certificate, it turns out, excels at misspellings. It hasn’t achieved EXCELLENCE ... or ACHIEVED. What’s with the aggrieved ACHIEVED? I should see I before E, except that’s not what I see.

The final entry on my to-do list is to fix ACHEIVEMENT. Transpose the second and third vowels and, just like that, we have reached an ACHIEVEMENT. That’s quite a feat.

All our tasks have been accomplished. √


Anybody out there like me? When composing to-do lists, I sometimes include simple tasks just for the ensuing satisfaction. This, for example, is what one of last week’s lists looked like before I attacked it:

By 10 a.m. I had already crossed off the first six items. I had accomplished so much so soon!

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