The power of words

Great sign, isn’t it? A zone free of body hate. Commendable.

Still. there is something about this image that makes me shudder, which probably has to do with me not being a native English speaker.

What is the shudder factor here? It’s in the last four words of the first sentence. ‘body hate free zone’. Of course, you will understand that this is a zone where body hate is not tolerated, it’s free of that. My native language however is Dutch, and, like the Germans, we’re not afraid of the occasional long word. Now this doesn’t mean we’d compact those four words into a bodyhatefreezone, as that looks kind of ridiculous, even to me (which means something).

What do you think if you see “body-hate free zone”? I hope it’s close to “body hate free zone”. But now look at this: “body-hate free-zone”. Oops… this changes the meaning drastically, doesn’t it? If it doesn’t, you’re either in luck or you don’t see where this is going.

Alf - Just kidding
As Alf said: Just Kidding!

A body-hate free-zone (to me) is a zone where it’s free to everyone to hate bodies and that’s not a good place to be. Feel free to disagree but this is my blog-post and from here on I’m forcing you to read on until the very end!

I would rather see this as a “body hate-free zone”. That way, with just one hyphen, the meaning of the expression is much clearer.

This, once again, is a show of the power of words for me. Words can convey a meaning, but the way they are glued together (or taken apart) makes all the difference. And with that I’m not kidding.

5 thoughts on “The power of words”

  1. Another issue and meaning are possible. On the original sign, ‘hate’ and ‘free’ are on different lines. If you insert a hyphen it implies that the whole word was originally ‘hatefree’, hyphenated at the line-end and separating two syllables. That word is new to my dictionary. What a wonderful language is English!

  2. This is why you’re a writer! The general public’s control over hyphens and apostrophes in English seems to get worse all the time. Just about every day, I’ll find a great meme in my FB or Twitter feed but then refuse to like it or repost it because it’s got one or more glaring errors in spelling or grammar. Sigh.

  3. Before I read Paul’s text, I read, then re-read the placard image text. Then I read it again. So one doesn’t need to be a non-native speaker of English to get confused or annoyed about this sort of thing! (Particularly if one is a pedant!!)

    I’m not sure I agree with Mark that one can presume that a hyphen at the end of the first line might indicate the writer intended the word “hatefree”, if only because it is impossible for a reader to distinguish between the printed representations of an optional hypen, non-optional hyphen, hard hyphen and soft hyphen. That metadata is unprinted.

    IMO we’re back to the importance of copy-editing (with or without hyphen – by chance it comes at a line end as I’ve typed it). See Paul’s recent blog titled “Collaborative naturist word-smiths”. Copy editing ought to pick up this sort of issue, and fix it, eg by changing word order.

    Adding words could ensure freedom from ambiguity and reader stumbling (eg “This zone offers freedom from body hate.”), but makes it more difficult to fit everything on the placard. Mind you, using regular rather than bold typeface would provide extra space to allow that, and could improve legibility as well?

    Solution? Acquire the services of a good advertising copy-writer (short slogans are more effective, unintended ambiguity is a bad thing), or a sub-editor for a tabloid (fewer characters in a headline mean they can all be bigger and grab more attention).

    In some respects, that is the KISS approach? While I approve of that, I find it very difficult to apply to my own writing.

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