Is it a little ironic that a reason for dismissing a question on a grammar/usage site contains at least one example of poor hyphenation?

I was just looking at this question when I saw that it had been put on hold as off-topic. The reason given contains "commonly-available", not to mention the questionable use of the compound "off-topic" after the noun. These are both frowned upon in every style guide I've seen (though I only look at style guides from the past 50 years or so). Is it a bit rich to be criticizing a question about correct language usage with poorly used language?

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    If you are suggesting that the phrasing in the close message needs to be altered, you should edit your question to make that clearer. Otherwise, this seems like peeving. – Kit Z. Fox Aug 22 '14 at 13:31
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    I'm new to this stackexchange and am wondering what people are like here. I had assumed that this site would be run by people who are meticulous with grammar. I want to know if that is the case, or if this is just another forum with the usual mixed bag of people who are more interested in the interactions than the substance. Whether or not the phrasing should be altered depends on the answer. – Mike Aug 22 '14 at 13:37
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    @Mike The people who created the site are programmers. The people who answer questions are (or think they are) subject-matter experts. These are not the same people. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 22 '14 at 13:38
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    Also, "frowned upon in every style guide" is different than "poor grammar", isn't it? Style guides are just an appeal to authority. Anyone can write a style guide. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 22 '14 at 13:40
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    - the hyphen after "commonly" is a typo and should be fixed. - the 'off-topic' hyphen, I don't know. - ELU leans away from the prescriptivist/language teaching/style guide proclamations/proofreading (well, actively precludes proofreading) and more lays out the possibilities of style and variations in grammar. Sometimes there are actual mistakes and other times there is just acceptable variation. – Mitch Aug 22 '14 at 13:41
  • @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 !wRites, sTyle-gUide! – Mitch Aug 22 '14 at 13:42
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    Also, I disagree that closing a question is criticizing it. Off-topic is off-topic. – Kit Z. Fox Aug 22 '14 at 13:42
  • @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 But can't people with more rep than me edit that? And what is grammar but generally accepted rules? What's the point of answering questions with anything other than "Make up the rules yourself"? – Mike Aug 22 '14 at 13:43
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    Is there any consensus on connecting 'off' and 'topic'? Space, hyphen or one word? – Mitch Aug 22 '14 at 13:43
  • I agree that "off-topic" is in more dubious territory, which is why I called its use "questionable" and said that there was "at least one example of poor hyphenation". But generally style guides I've seen lightly discourage that hyphen. (I don't recall ever seeing it as one word.) – Mike Aug 22 '14 at 13:46
  • People with rep can edit questions and answers. Not the site software itself. Some of the close reasons can be set by moderators, I think. And grammar has generally-accepted rules, but they can be described through linguistics; style guides are just one author's preferences for proper use of grammar, punctuation, etc, to achieve optimal results. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 22 '14 at 13:54
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    There is a significant range in the skill, focus and attitude of the denizens of this site. There are rabid prescriptivists and there are loosey-goosey laissez-fairers. Some of us write a lot and some play at the edges. Some of us (like me) tend to be a bit sloppy (our brains and attention run faster than our fingers). Some are careful and precise. Most are really and deeply interested in the language. Our tone is sometimes snarky, and many of us are trying to resist that. Hang around. Join in. Make the site look a bit more like you (whatever that is). – bib Aug 22 '14 at 16:13
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    I think OP should get himself a style guide that's more in keeping with how people actually use English. According to NGrams, the vast majority of writers use a hyphen in off-piste, off-site, so by extension they would also hyphenate the somewhat less common collocation off-topic. – FumbleFingers Aug 22 '14 at 20:44
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    What's really going to be ironic is when we close this question as off-topic. – Dan Bron Aug 22 '14 at 21:56
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    Hyphenation is a matter of orthography, not of grammar. – tchrist Aug 23 '14 at 6:03

Some style guides, including the most widely influential ones in the Unites States, disapprove of hyphenating compounds of the type "commonly available." The advice in The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition (2003), is representative:

7.87 Adverbs ending in "ly." Compounds formed by an adverb ending in ly plus an adjective or participle (such as largely irrelevant or smartly dressed) are not hyphenated either before or after a noun, since ambiguity is virtually impossible.

So publishers and publications that follow Chicago's style guidelines don't hyphenate phrases like commonly available—and anyone who favors a minimalist approach to punctuation (that is, an approach based on the idea that punctuation is appropriate only when omitting it might damage the clarity of the writing) may find Chicago's rationale persuasive.

But it's just a style guideline. Hyphenating commonly-available does not damage the sense of that phrase, any more than hyphenating to-morrow damages the sense of that word. As long as the text consistently applies the style choice its author or publisher has made, I as a reader have no trouble adapting to that approach. Readers who can't get over their hostility toward a consistently applied style that differs from the one they personally favor are, I think, their own worst enemy: They let their insistence that some minor style decision is wrong divert their attention from the substance of the content they are reading to something that is ultimately arbitrary and trivial.

The poster's criticism of off-topic finds far less support in style guides than his criticism of commonly-available does. Unlike phrases of the type adverbly adjective, which Chicago (among other style guides) recommends leaving open regardless of where it appears in a sentence, a term like off-topic normally (for clarity) takes a hyphen when it appears before the associated noun (as in "off-topic question"), and Chicago is far from categorical in its endorsement of leaving such terms open when they appear after the associated noun:

7.86 Compound modifiers before or after a noun. When compound modifiers (also called phrasal adjectives) such as open-mouthed or nicotine-free come later in a phrase than the noun they describe, ambiguity is unlikely and the hyphen dispensable (though not incorrect). When such compounds precede a noun, hyphenation usually makes for easier reading. ... Hyphenated adjectival compounds that appear in Webster (such as well-read or ill-humored) may be spelled without a hyphen when they follow a noun.

The gist of 7.86 is that compounds of the off-topic type "may" be spelled without a hyphen when they follow the associated noun, but are "not incorrect" if spelled with a hyphen.

  • Damn you, Chicago Manual of Style, for your nuance. Where is my "I'm right!" answer? – Mitch Sep 5 '14 at 20:38
  • That's why people who need to be right need to create their own style guides. There's glory for you! – Sven Yargs Sep 5 '14 at 21:20

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