Wednesday, July 23, 2003

As R. Lee Ermy might say: Put a @#$&*$#@ hyphen in it, Sailor!

Hi. Allow me to introduce myself. In addition to being a writer here at the Tester, I've also been the copy editor for most of the last year, which basically means I'm the Grammar Schoolmarm here in Tombstone. A lot of writing has come across my desk in the last year, not just Tester articles submitted by PAO types, but also a lot of other stuff written by military people, engineers, and various levels of administrators - reports, notices, announcements, press releases, you name it.

The technical quality (spelling, punctuation, grammar rules) of all that writing has been what you'd expect - some good, some bad, the majority of it average and generally acceptable. That being said, there is one grammar rule that almost no one on this station (or, to be perfectly fair, at many other outfits) ever gets right. My guess from what I've seen is that this particular aspect of writing is done incorrectly on this station about 95 per cent of the time. Yep, that's a lot, and it's therefore the subject of this little homily.

Now, I'm normally a calm, mild-mannered, avuncular type (all right, some of my colleagues are snickering, and I think I heard a guffaw over in John Romer's office - and he's in the next building), and so perhaps I'm not the right guy to deliver this lesson.

So, because this is a military base, and because so many of our 19,000 employees are present or former military people, don't think of this seminar as though it were being given by the Grammar Schoolmarm. Rather, think of it as being presented in a military training environment by, say, the likes of R. Lee Ermy, the tough former Marine sergeant featured as a drill instructor in the Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket and on the cable History Channel show Mail Call. It might go something like this:

"AWRIGHT, YOU MAGGOTS, LISTEN UP! I've never seen so miserable a performance in my life, so you LADIES are gonna get some extra instruction in using the Standard Military Issue Punctuation Symbol P Dash 27 Stroke Niner, known to some of you keyboard desk jockeys as the HYPHEN. We are gonna STAY here and learn how to properly use the P-27/9 government-issue HYPHEN if it takes all day. You will EAT with the hyphen, you will SLEEP with the hyphen, the hyphen is your best FRIEND, and you WILL use the hyphen in the manner in which your mommas and your fourth grade English teacher intended, DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR, PEOPLE?

"The one place you rear-echelon eight-balls and Slide-Rule Sallies can't seem to get the hang of the hyphen is its use in a compound modifier. Can you tell me what a compound modifier is, Cpl. Farnsworth?"


"DROP DOWN AND GIVE ME 20, MISTER! Seaman Carruthers!"

"Sir! Yessir! A compound modifier is two or more words strung together to modify a third word, which is usually a noun. That makes it an adjectival phrase, sir, which is why it is also sometimes called a compound adjective, sir!"

"Not bad, Carruthers. As you were. MIS-ter Atkins, maybe you can stop inputting data into your precious little calculator long enough to give me a military example of a compound adjective!"

"Sir! A Tomahawk missile is a ship-launched missile. The phrase 'ship-launched' is the compound modifier and always requires a hyphen, sir!"

"And did you put a hyphen in that press release you sent out, Atkins?"

"Er ... ah ..."


* * *

Well, it could go on like that.

In fact there are dozens of common military and engineering expressions we use on this station all the time, and nine times out of ten they are written incorrectly because of the lack of a hyphen. Sometimes I think there is a class at the Naval Academy where hapless young Mids are drilled mercilessly day and night until they field-strip all hyphens from their homework assignments, leaving behind only commas, periods and question marks.

Some examples:

Land-based, sea-based, California-based - if it's based somewhere, it gets a hyphen, even if it isn't even geographical: DOS-based program.

Air-launched, sea-launched, ship-launched, truck-launched. And for multiple launchers, it's "the Tomahawk is a sub- and ship-launched missile." Ditto for "-guided": the Tomahawk is a precision-guided missile; the GBU-24 is a laser-guided bomb. Some guidance systems (and/or the missiles they are mounted on) are terrain-following. This makes them high-performance weapons (not "high performance weapons," which are performance weapons that have smoked Maui Wowie).

Steel-reinforced concrete (or anything -reinforced).

Next-generation aircraft carrier.

Air-to-air, air-to-ground, surface-to-air, etc.

Anything intensive: software-intensive, labor-intensive.

Thrust-vectored landing is when a plane uses thrust vectoring (no hyphens) to land.

Active-duty personnel are people who are on active duty.

Cold-weather operations are performed during the winter; "cold weather operations" are weather operations performed when the air conditioning is too low. Similarly, hot-weather operations are performed during the summer, whereas hot weather operations could be anything: weather operations performed by girls in bikinis, or perhaps the operations are "hot" because they are very timely, or maybe stolen.

Much state-of-the-art equipment often features flat-panel displays, and transmissions are sent over fiber-optic cables, while navigational systems have good range-finding capabilities that give read-outs in real-time so you can make time-critical decisions while flying your fixed-wing aircraft which might have been built on a fixed-price contract in order to reduce life-cycle costs and provide a user-friendly interface that helps make high-technology aviation so incident-free. ("Real-time" takes a hyphen because it is a specific technology buzzword that must be differentiated from using the word "real" in other contexts, i.e. "The real time is 3:56, not 3:52 as that clock says.")

The word "free," by the way, is never hyphen-free; whether it's fat-free, sugar-free, hassle-free, accident-free or incident-free, it takes a hyphen. Of course, if you aren't accident-free, you might be accident-prone.

An article in a national publication on the F/A-18's improved software fix for the "falling leaf" problem referred to "the Hornet's slow speed handling characteristics"; this should have been "slow-speed handling characteristics." It's not the speed handling characteristics (or even speed-handling characteristics) that were slow, but the handling characteristics when the plane was flying at slow speed.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, this is all just a bunch of Grammar Schoolmarm stuff and in the grand scheme of things isn't important. And most of the time, I'd probably agree, except for two considerations. The first consideration is that once in a while, you can get into really big, serious trouble over a stinkin' little hyphen (or the lack of one). Here are two examples:

There is a fairly high-ranking officer on this station right now who had a previous tour in Southern Command, where he was in charge of a joint-forces group that tracked and intercepted suspicious airplanes flying into the United States. Someone wrote of him that he was in charge of "illegal drug interdiction operations." I'm not mentioning this officer's name, because this statement about him is potentially libelous, and (if he weren't such a nice guy) he could sue my sorry butt and/or get me fired. Newspapers get very touchy about libel, and my wife gets very touchy about paying the mortgage. What the statement about Officer X said was that he was the mastermind behind operations that interdicted drugs (Aspirin? Lipitor? Prescription-strength Preparation H?) and that doing so was illegal. It would necessarily follow that because he performed "illegal" actions, he should be court-martialed and sent to Fort Leavenworth. Of course, he did no such thing. He was in charge of "illegal-drug-interdiction operations," which is considerably different. To you this might seem a little nit-picking piece of pettifoggery; to me it's somebody's $10 million-dollar lawsuit as well as completely unwarranted character assassination.

All over a couple of hyphens.

Not me, babe.

Unfortunately, this sentence appeared in the Tester two weeks ago (yes, we make mistakes, too): "The NAVAIR ICAP III program recently awarded a firm fixed price contract to the Northrop Grumman Corporation for 10 operational Low Rate Initial Production units." This sentence contains no less than three errors, all compound-modifier problems, and the first one is fairly serious: the "fixed price contract."

This phrase is used all the time in the acquisitions end of military procurement (to say nothing of the private sector). As written, a "fixed price contract" is something called a "price contract" that apparently was defective in some manner, and had to be repaired; that's the best interpretation. The worst interpretation is that, like a crooked boxing match or the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series, the awarding of the contract was "fixed" in the potentially criminal sense. Clearly, it wasn't the "contract" that was fixed, it was the "price" that was fixed (made to be stationary, non-moving, not adjustable, etc.).

Even more clearly, there's absolutely no way the writer (and I don't even know who it was, and don't care) ever intended such a slur.

"It's not what I meant!" the writer will wail. I know, I know ... but that's what you wrote.

(What disturbs me is not only that the Tester staff missed it - but so did the half dozen or dozen people in whatever department had a "chop" at this piece.)

For the record, the other two errors in that sentence are "Low Rate" and "Initial Production." Taken together, these four words constitute an actual, formal contracting/acquisition term, and it is often reduced to its acronym, LRIP. Be that as it may, it's still wrong. Since it is the rate of production that is low (it ain't a question of altitude), it absolutely, positively, MUST be "Low-Rate," because it modifies the word "Production." (The fact that this is a formal title or a full-blown program or whatever, is completely irrelevant; that'd be like saying, "Well, since it's the title of a contracting methodology, we don't have to spell it correctly, either. Just for the heck of it, let's make it Produkshun.")

"Initial Production" is trickier. If the sentence is something like, "We are going to begin low-rate initial production next week," then "production" is both a noun and the object of the sentence; because it is a noun, the words "low-rate" and "initial" modify it. "Initial" is not particularly tied to "low-rate" any more than "big" and "green" are tied together in "big green truck." However, the quoted sentence that started this whole mess used the phrase "for 10 operational Low Rate Initial Production units." In this case, depending on how you want to count, there are either three or four words/phrases modifying the word "units." The first is "10," the second is "operational," and then there's "Low-Rate" and "Initial Production." Some people might argue that LRIP is all one single modifier, and if you adopt that view the only way to punctuate it is "10 operational Low-Rate-Initial-Production units." Others might argue that since "Low-Rate has nothing to do with "Initial," it should be "10 operational Low-Rate Initial-Production units." That one's a crapshoot; pony up your nickel and toss the dice. I think I'd argue that since LRIP is a unitary acquisition term, it should be "Low-Rate-Initial-Production units."

(We aren't going to argue capitalization issues nor alternative use of the acronym LRIP as a solution; sometimes you don't have the choice.)

And yes, it ought to be network-centric warfare, network-centric operations, network-centric considerations, etc.

One final example, and it's my favorite because we see it all the time here at Pax River because we do a lot of it: "high angle of attack" maneuvers or landings, or whatever. (The same applies to "low angle of attack.) The phrase "angle of attack" is problematic all by itself, because many grammarians would argue that because the phrase refers to a very specific unitary function in aerodynamics - whether the aircraft is level, or if its nose is pitched up, and if so, how high - the phrase ought to be written "angle-of-attack." The same grammatical argument is made back and forth for "change-of-command ceremony" versus "change of command ceremony," "commander in chief" versus "commander-in-chief," FBI "Agent in Charge" (a very specific job title) versus FBI "Agent-in-Charge," and so on.

Here's the problem: it doesn't matter which way you decide to punctuate "angle of attack/angle-of-attack"; when you stick the word "high" or "low" in front, it's a whole new ballgame. It is not the maneuver or the landing that is high or low. A "high angle of attack landing" would be a landing made at, say, 40,000 feet, which is only slightly more ridiculous than a low angle of attack landing, which might be made at, say 200 feet off the runway. You can't make beer call if you never touch the ground.

Clearly, it is only the angle that is high or low. You can say, "I executed a maneuver at a high angle of attack," and it is clear the nose was pitched up; you said the angle was high. But if you said, "I executed a high angle of attack maneuver," the phrase becomes a compound adjective and it isn't clear exactly what you meant. Yeah, yeah, all you pilots and aeronautical engineers are saying, "Jeesh, everybody knows what 'high angle of attack' means."

No, buddy, they don't. Your grandmother in Dubuque, Iowa, hasn't got a clue, and won't know if you executed that maneuver at 50,000 feet, or whether it means you were smoking dope at the time. But if you insert the hyphens where they belong - "a high-angle-of-attack maneuver" - your grandmother will understand, because that's what she was taught when she was in elementary school during the Grover Cleveland administration. (It's how you were taught, too, but like most of us, you've forgotten it.)

I wrote earlier that there were two major reasons why this irritating, nit-picking stuff is important. The first reason was libel and technical accuracy in potentially embarrassing situations. (How'd you like to volunteer to work in an anti-child abuse program when an anti-child-abuse program would seem to be a better choice?) The second reason is this: professionalism. Image. The appearance of technical competence. Would you show up at inspection with unpolished shoes and your shirttail out?

If all you do is write informal memos that never leave your department, then you're right - this is all nonsense. But if you are writing a report that goes up the chain-of-command (or chain of command) or a press release sent out to the media, then this stuff is just as important as proper spelling and factual accuracy, and tucking in your shirttail in front of company.

You don't want R. Lee Ermy in your face, do you?