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November 15th, 2006

Correcting a future son-in-law's grammar / well hyphen? educated

by Barbara Wallraff

Name and hometown withheld writes: “In an effort not to alienate my soon-to-be son-in-law, I rarely correct his grammar. He and his entire family are wonderful but minimally educated people. He profusely uses ‘ain’t,’ ‘don’t got none’ and hundreds of other incorrect words and phrases. He tells me that everyone he works with talks like that and ‘It’s no big deal.’ How does one tactfully influence another to learn to talk correctly? Sign me ‘Cringing but happily awaiting the wedding.’”

Dear “Cringing”: Stay quiet. After all, you’re not marrying him -- your daughter is. No doubt what’s important to her is that he’s a wonderful guy. And if he has a flaw or two -- well, so do we all.

It is true that he would find it easier to move up in the world if he were as comfortable with standard English as he is expressing himself colloquially. This is a fact, not a value judgment. Being well spoken goes hand in hand with being well educated, and the better educated he is, the more money he’s likely to earn. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year median earnings for high-school graduates (ones over the age of 25 and employed full-time) were about $30,000, while college graduates earned almost $50,000.

Your son-in-law may do just fine the way he is. Or the day may come when he’ll want a job that requires him to go back to school, and then he’ll probably have to brush up on grammar. I’d suggest you focus on encouraging him -- along with your daughter, of course -- to have goals and ambitions and dreams. If he does, I predict that sooner or later better use of language will come naturally to him. Then the challenge for you will be to keep from saying “I told you so.”

Richard S. Russell, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Why do many well educated people put a hyphen between ‘well’ and ‘educated’? ‘Well’ is being used as an adverb, adverbs modify adjectives, and the only adjective in range is ‘educated.’ So why the hyphen?”

Dear Richard: For once, the words’ parts of speech are beside the point. Hyphens in compound modifiers are intended to keep readers from getting confused. Is “green salad dressing” green dressing or dressing for a green salad? If the latter, it should be written “green-salad dressing,” to make clear that “green” modifies “salad,” and “green-salad” modifies “dressing.”

I do agree with you that “well educated people” isn’t especially confusing. No one is likely to suppose it means “well people who are educated.” But English includes lots of different “well” compounds -- for instance, “well-balanced,” “well-spoken” and “well-to-do.” Rather than deciding case by case whether a particular “well” compound in a particular context is likely to confuse anyone, hyphenating all of them has become customary.

At least, that’s true when the compound comes before the noun. When it’s someplace else in the sentence, it isn’t hyphenated: “She is well educated.” “His diet is well balanced.” I don’t, honestly, see why readers are more likely to stumble over “well educated” before the noun than after. If it were up to me, I’d rethink the whole thing. But in this case I’m not ruling, just reporting.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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