John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Is nonlife threatened?
The woman, this sentence tells me, has injuries that are threatening nonlife. That, of course, is nonsense, and a reader would have to be thicker than a plank to understand the phrase as other than non-life-threatening injuries, with non modifying life-threatening. Still, it’s an awkward-looking construction, and I think I know where it comes from.
The Associated Press Stylebook says that the prefix non is generally attached without a hyphen. So a copy editor who applies “rules” without thinking will make sure that the reader gets nonlife-threatening.
But the AP says also to use a hyphen to avoid “awkward constructions.”
That would require judgment.