Monthly Archives: August 2013

Bring Out Your Dead!

While reading Mary Roach’s fascinating and surprisingly humorous Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, I came across this sentence:

“A series of modern-day Burke-and-Hare–type killings took place barely ten years ago, in Barranquilla, Colombia.”

In the 1820s, William Burke and William Hare became notorious for selling corpses to Edinburgh anatomist Robert Knox, who eagerly bought the cadavers for the purposes of dissection. While grave-robbing was common enough, the problem here is that the two Williams, shall we say, hastened along the deaths of the cadavers they then sold to Knox.

* Notice the proper way to make a plural of the name “William”—the plural of the last name “Williams” would be “Williamses.”

Of interest to us, though, is the use of hyphens and en dashes in the sentence. Grouping adjectival expressions before a noun is simple enough. We hyphenate “modern-day” to hold it together so the reader can more easily see that it’s modifying “killings.” But what of “Burke-and-Hare–type”?

We hold “Burke-and-Hare” together with hyphens: no problem there. But then we tack “type” onto the end with the en dash, which might look a bit odd to some. Why do we do this? “Type” has to apply to the full expression “Burke-and-Hare,” so we need something stronger than a hyphen: the en dash. Were we to use the humble hyphen there, “type” could be read as applying to “Hare” only. And we wouldn’t want to let Burke off the hook.

So . . . you dissect a line of text. A dangling participle might make one think of a criminal hanging from the end of a rope. What is a full stop but the death of a sentence? An ellipsis might suggest a gradual slipping away from this world.

Are there any other deathly (and grammar related) allusions you’d like to contribute?

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