Journalism 103: What the Hyphen Does

From the Washington Post of July 19, 2015 in a story on the status of research into Alzheimer’s:

“This is one of the rare, good news stories,” said Richard Lipton, who heads the Einstein Aging Study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

It is good to have good news about Alzheimer’s, but the way the writer punctuated this quote needs help.

Dr. Lipton’s “rare” is describing the story, not the news it contains. But the comma between “rare” and “good” makes it appear that he is listing the qualities of the stories; he is saying they are both rare and good. That’s not his point. To make his point, take out the comma and link “good” and “news” with a hyphen and “good-news” becomes a phrase describing the stories. Now you have:

“This is one of the rare, good-news stories”…

Which is what the doctor meant.

The hyphen has earned its keep.

–Mike Feinsilber

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