Tag Archives: balcony

Dear Fellow Students

Dear Fellow Students,

I understand your confusion.  Truly, I do.  I, too, am also plagued by the misunderstandings that accompany the misuse or nonuse of hyphens.

As your apparent puzzlement indicates, you are well aware of the purpose of the hyphen.  You know that when two words which modify one another are used to modify a third word, the initial two words should be hyphenated.  For instance, let’s take the completely arbitrary words “Tobacco”, “Free” and “Campus” to make the phrase “Tobacco Free Campus”. Without a hyphen, this phrase is much like the Wonder Twins without their rings of power: kind of confusing, a little awkward, and possibly useless.  The phrase could be taken to mean that you are currently standing on a campus that is made entirely of tobacco and to which entrance is free of charge.  You could also interpret the phrase to mean that tobacco products are hurled at students on this campus with no expectation of compensation (albeit, that requires a slight stretch of the imagination).

However, insert the ring of power (the hyphen, in this case) into the equation, and, as surely as those Twins of Wonder will transform into a puddle of water and a walrus, the vague phrase is changed to one that makes perfect sense: a “Tobacco-Free Campus” is clearly a campus on which tobacco products are prohibited.

Now, the school which we attend does not appear to understand how confounding some phrases can be without hyphens.  They have placed signs throughout the buildings which could be interpreted in any of the ways listed above.  Yes, they should have had the signs checked by a copy editor.  Yes, you are evidently baffled by their meaning.  Never fear.  I am here to clear things up once and for all.

I feel confident in saying that, despite the lack of hyphens, the signs posted on every entrance and exit door on campus do have one correct interpretation, which is as follows:

Stop filling the balconies where I study with your disgusting cigarette smoke.

Glad I could help you out in your quest for truth.




Dear Users of Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs

Dear Users of Nouns, Pronouns and Verbs,

I would like to make the bold request that you be more precise when speaking/singing/writing.  Using ambiguous nouns and verbs makes it difficult for the reader to decipher what you intend to communicate.  Ambiguity can also result in entrapment or even death, as this letter will no doubt prove.

My first example is something that happened to me today.  I was exploring my school campus, looking for a place to read alone, when I found a really great balcony.  The door leading to the balcony had several signs on it, and I read each one.  Scrawled in some messy penmanship on one of the signs was the statement:

Door will lock after closing.

I thought about this for a moment.  Did the author intend to communicate that the door would lock after the building closed or after the door closed? I went with the former, assuming that, had the writer meant the latter, they would have written something like, “Door will lock when it closes,” or “This door locks from the outside,” or even “Prop the door open by any means if you don’t want to be stuck on a balcony for the rest of your life.”

I soon discovered my mistake and was forced to call a school admin to let me back in the building.  This incident could have been avoided if the wording on the sign had been more specific.

The next example is a very serious one indeed.  You may be familiar with the band The Postal Service.  The opening line of their song “Clark Gable” is:

I was waiting for a cross-town train in the London Underground
When it struck me

What struck you, Postal Service Lead Singer Guy? To what does this “it” refer? Because, to be honest, every time I hear this song, I imagine you standing on the rails, waiting and thinking deep thoughts.  And then I imagine an underground train rushing out of nowhere, hitting, and killing you. (As a side note, I do realize that that intention of the writer is clarified one line later.  However, as a result of the construction of the song, I still feel that the pronoun used here is ambiguous.)

These examples clearly illustrate just how important it is to use clear language.  If you don’t, you may end up in serious danger…or, at least, the subjects of whatever you’re writing, may end up in serious danger.  Either way, it’s something to pay close attention to.

I hope that this letter persuades you to be more careful and specific in your word usage.