The Corner

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Why Hyphens Are Important


The other day my wife and I visited a recently opened park near where we live. At the front gate we were confronted with a sign bearing a long list of rules: No food or drink, no radios, no pets, no littering, no bicycles, etc. Now, you do need to enforce some rules on the use of public space, or else you end up with the Battle of Tompkins Square. But if you try to foresee every possible bit of behavior that might cause problems, and ban it entirely as a precaution, it defeats the purpose of having a park. Sort of a microcosm of governmental overregulation . . . oh, and did I mention that this park is named after Franklin D. Roosevelt?

But that’s not what’s important here; the most important thing, as always, is punctuation. One of the rules on the list outside the front gate read: OBSERVE NO SMOKING POLICY. And it occurred to me that for want of a hyphen (OBSERVE NO-SMOKING POLICY), they had made it mean exactly the opposite of what they intended. Somehow I doubt the security guards would see it that way, but they might let you off with a caution — if only because FDR himself used to light one up from time to time.