The Inimitable Hyphen, Part 3

The Inimitable Hyphen, Part 3

Elisabeth Preston-Hsu, MD reviews the history of surnaming, challenging expectations of naming traditions, and "nerding out" over the power of hyphen (Part 3 of this 3 part article)

Part I of this article was published last week. Access it here.

Other situations break from the traditional naming systems for the sake of money or lineage.

Married same-sex couples add to the mix of possibilities: endless and creative. Naming conventions undergo changes depending on history, politics, and wars, and can do so quickly with strong political or social pressures. Still, so many people resist to honor one’s choice of last name when it’s obviously happening all over the world. Many American-born men I’ve talked with express concern their family name will die without someone carrying it on. Why shouldn’t that apply to a woman’s family name? Why shouldn’t she make a decision about her own name? Looking at a family tree and recognizing one’s last name cements a bond with those distant dead relatives differently than another last name.

If I met a person with the last name of Preston, I’d perk up more than if I had met a Smith. But maybe that Smith is a Preston-Smith. Without the hyphen, I don’t see that connection and the joining. With the “Preston” dropped, that inimitable hyphen’s usefulness and ability to reveal lineage was ignored because of tradition. Ignoring that powerful hyphen compels loss of knowing who we are connected to.


Let’s value that connection.

In in his book of essays The Book of Delights, Ross Gay calls the hyphen “the handshake of the punctuation world.” This handshake serves as an introduction and the intended permanence of the joined words. What patients call me. How my friends introduce me to new friends. The name on my will. What my social security card says. Inter-generational connections. The ability to change the meanings of the joined words. The hyphen extends to more than our naming and identity but to other parts of life, even more than what the lawyer drawing up my will could recognize. My will acts like a hyphen itself to joins the spectrum of time, in life and death, what I have now to prepare for the future. That sturdy bridge extends itself beyond my naming, even farther beyond what the lawyer could see that day I sat in his office.

Maybe this connection reaches beyond what some people expect it can, making it easy to miss. Rather, what feels right to me doesn’t always translate to everyone else. Here’s what you should know: a hyphen has a function and a destiny. It makes the English language clearer, just like its curvy, eyelash-shaped friend, the comma. The comma flirts and flutters before it pauses to clarify; the hyphen joins immediately, bonding words and ideas together. It says, I won’t let go. We belong together. We are inseparable.

Paying attention to a hyphen isn’t about blindly following rules either. Its use is purposeful. Cecelia Watson in her well-researched and delightful book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark makes a case for the grammar rule lovers. Merely memorizing rules of language does not promote “control and mastery over language.” That comes with writing style. The only way to develop style is to avidly read and think about the punctuation used then develop a flexibility in its use in the right context, she advises. To slow down to read hyphens (and semicolons and commas for that matter) to appreciate the style of what we read means something. There is more than one reason why any mark is there.

An appropriately-placed hyphen strives to make phrases and words unambiguous where a writer feels it’s necessary to clarify. The word itself is from Ancient Greek ὑπό ἕν (hypó hén) which means “under one.” One. The hyphen connects names, identities, to life, and simply: words.

A friend wrote me, “I taught English-language students in China,” Without the hyphen, one might think she was talking about British students learning language, not Chinese students learning English. Use a hyphen when one or two words come before and modify a noun.

I re-covered the chair with fabric versus I recovered my lost earring from a swamp. I re-emerge from a fitful nightmare about sub-par apostrophe use versus I reemerge from that same nightmare. A hyphen helps clarify a prefix if otherwise the word could be confusing without it or looks cluttered.

Her johnny-come-lately brother-in-law attended a family reunion and felt out-of-sorts. Two part nouns or adjectives used as one entity need hyphens, especially if there are prepositions.

George R. R. Martin did not write “Every man should lose a bat-” hanging at a line break. Lose a baseball bat? Misplace a furry, winged animal that uses echolocation to avoid flying into hyphen-shaped rocks, poles, or buildings? Hop to the next line: it’s battle. A hyphen shows a line-to-line word wrap.

Or, in my case, and related to my name, a fleck of ink that apparently annoys and confuses people. I understand confusion from people about my hyphenated name initially but when continued after my clear and patient explanations, it smacks more of people’s indifference to it.

Besides my love of clarity (who doesn’t want to be understood?), my appreciation of the hyphen comes down to love of family. That hyphen is demi-honorific for me, joining two family names into one entity: Preston-Hsu. It’s “unusual” some people say. As a physician, I love learning unusual and uncommon names, hyphens or not. I appreciate names I can’t pronounce or don’t recognize. They make me want to gather more information about where someone is from, who their family is, or learn about their ancestry. The hyphen’s handshake of words merges worlds.

Portuguese people hyphenate surnames. So do the Swiss and even the British. In 18th and 19th century aristocratic Britain, hyphenated names often flaunted family ties, especially if the wife was wealthy or if family name preservation was important to connect inheritance to family monies in the absence of male heirs. Spanish-speaking countries leave out the hyphen but understand two surnames function as a new whole. So many different naming systems around the world appreciate matronymic and patronymic connections. Some countries need the hyphen to do that, some don’t. That hyphen is redundant, extraneous, and expendable in some places. But here, in the United States, a country composed of people from all over the world who undoubtedly have experience with all sorts of naming differences and with hyphens, that powerful mark still eludes many, as though one name erases the other or we are too daft to remember two travel together. The hyphen demands we pay attention.

Maybe we assume a jumble of names isn’t important to the person who carries them. It’s not name apathy: perhaps it’s simply a moving forward or purposeful forgetting. There are various reasons why one last name is chosen then changed legally. Maybe a woman never liked her maiden name. Or she could be on the haggard end of a divorce and wants a new beginning. For other people, a name could have connections to family memories they’d rather forget. We read about people with aliases running from the law, their original last names stamped over with new ones.

Pre-wedding, a man may espouse the “tradition” camp and not recognize there is a choice. Maybe he’s afraid his name will wither and a genealogy tree with relatives without the same last name seems less connected, even less related. (Um, the hyphen could take care of that.) A person may change a name to honor a biological versus adoptive parent’s name or unite a foster child into an adoptive family. An engaged couple desires to share the same last name, to be joined by law and duplicate letters. We can recognize and respect these decisions of personal choice. Our names belong to each of us.

The hyphen achieves more than just connecting names into one. It connects all of us, honoring not just the patriline of ancestors, but also the matriline. We break out of white western patriarchal, even kyriarchal, mindset to repair suppressed matrilineal, heteronormative traditions. If tradition doesn’t feel right, if it comes with unwanted expectation or a veiling over, we should not be obligated to follow it. I hold the hyphen in high regard, especially in its role to make my surname. I do not lazily choose one word on either side of that powerful fleck. No, the words are joined. It’s all me.

I understand the logic that there is power in joining names rather than complete autonomy falters a bit. But there is complete autonomy in that newly made name, in the act of making it and the examination of it. The name glistens new, the hyphen giving it its birth. Yet, it carries the past with it; completely pruning the history from a name is impossible. No name comes from nothing. Take my name as a guide to help you navigate how to interpret what the hyphen creates. I join two distinctions to make a new, better whole.

In “Preston” I see my parents, my siblings (some of whom hyphenate also), a bursting pride that I am connected to a sturdy family tree. “Hsu” adds to this legacy, honoring the rich family history and sacrifices made by my immigrant in-laws. My children bear this one-syllable name, stout and full of strength and stories. The sum parts represent a greater whole in “Preston-Hsu.” That’s me being the better-than-you-expected-I’d-be-because-I-hyphenate me. All one feeling. Just one.

This piece first appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Fall 2021.

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