Let's reform health care! Or re-form it? If Matsui resigns, is he staying with the Yankees or leaving them?


"Re-created vs. recreated, re-sign vs. resign, reenter vs. reënter?" Frequent Max Syntax reader Mark Rifkin, a managing editor at HarperCollins Children's Books, asked us to address this topic.


We've talked here before apropos John Benbow's classic comment about hyphens:

"If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad."

--John Benbow, Manuscript and Proof (1937)

I do love Benbow, but I think he was referring mainly to the hyphenation of compound words. What I'm dealing with today is the use of a hyphen in an alternate spelling of a word with a prefix such as re- or co-. Using a hyphen with a prefix seems to generate differences in meaning; without a hyphen, recreate could mean making something anew or participating in recreational activities.


And what is with that umlaut in the New Yorker's "reënter" and "coöperation" anyway?


My advice is to be completely clear about what you mean when you use recreate/re-create, resign/re-sign, and so on. Carefully choose a consistent style for such possibly confusing words so your readers will always know what you mean when they see that term. Consult dictionaries such as American Heritage and Merriam Webster's Collegiate for guidance.


And as for the New Yorker's umlaut . . . prepare for an oncoming MASSIVE GEEK ATTACK. The magazine's use of this mark elicits kinetic responses from style mavens ranging from mild head-scratching to vigorous eye-rolling to jumping up and down shouting, "No! No! No!" It is certainly a peculiarity of that magazine.


First of all, the New Yorker's two-dot diacritc, or mark above the letter, is not an umlaut but a diaeresis. Umlauts are found only in German, and they indicate an actual different vowel: u and ü are not the same letter. The mark appears only in the letters ä, ö, and ü.


What the two dots of the diaeresis indicate in English is a phonetic distinction, one of sound, not meaning. And to confuse matters, the two dots used that way are called the trema in French and German. A diaeresis indicates the second vowel of a pair is pronounced not as part of the first vowel but as an entirely separate vowel, with a syllable of its own. Not Zoe like Joe but Zo-ee like Joey.


Probably the best and geekiest discussion of this, complete with the diaeresis's origin in Latin prosody (O prosody! So dear to my Classical Civ major's heart -- as dear, perhaps as that vocative O) is at this link http://tinyurl.com/yl8ft55


originally from this article:




These explanations come complete with the Unicode for the marks, so dive right in.


Not a bit of this geek lore, of course, explains why the New Yorker chose such a strange stylistic quirk. Should any recreational reader know the history of this odd affectation, please re-create it for us!

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