Wine buffs often quote Kingsley Amis, that luxuriant drinker, who once wrote that three of the most depressing words in the English language were, ‘Red or white?’ (As a teenager, I had to have that joke explained to me; now, I shudder along with the old devil.) Once, on a slow day in the office, some colleagues and I made up a game inspired by his remark. Everyone tried to pin down the three words that really made their hearts sink.
One woman, a freelancer, chose a familiar formula: ‘Thanks but no.’ A politically conscious friend chose ‘PFI’, or ‘private finance initiative’, the disastrous New Labour scheme for funding public development. A financial editor, after some thought, came up with ‘pre-Budget report’. And one friend of mine spoke for the nation when he chose the dreaded ‘Rail Replacement Service’.
What about me? As a team leader for a group of sub-editors, as well as countless freelance subs who were desperate to stick like glue to house style, I had to choose: ‘Is it hyphenated?’
Now, there may be editors out there who like nothing better than a good old chin-wag about the hyphenatability (or possibly hyphenatabilitude) of a given compound. After all, it’s their bread and butter. Er, bread-and-butter. But every editor has some particular bugbear, some little phrase or question, three words long, that strikes a death knell only they can hear. What’s yours?