Yesterday, Timothy McKenzie became the latest victim of the hyphen dilemma, described in the Metro as ‘the only non-talent show act signed to Simon Cowell’s label, Syco.’ That’s a bit harsh for an opener, I said to my partner. How did he manage to get signed? The fact that my eye saw the pairing of ‘non’ and talent,’ and my brain automatically paired ‘show’ and ‘act,’ means that this sentence should have been clearer. This is the sort of writing that has Bill Bryson reaching for scissors and scrap book as he compiles his followup to Troublesome Words.
What the author has got right is the attachment of the prefix. The difficulty is that ‘non-talent show act’ is, as the Penguin Guide to Punctuation puts it, hard on the eye. Written in isolation, ‘talent show’ is not hard to digest. When writing ‘talent show act’ the journalist might have opted for ‘talent-show act’ and the meaning would have been obvious.
Penguin offers guidance both on attaching a prefix to words already containing a hyphen and words containing ‘white space’ (warning that ‘your reader cannot be expected to take in some indigestible glob’). In the same way that ‘seal killing’ must become ‘anti-seal-killing’ (their choice of example, not mine), ‘talent show’ must become ‘non-talent-show.’ In my mind, this clumsy combination still suggests a show for the untalented, and is best re-worked, but at least we have gone some way towards transforming Timothy McKenzie from untalented showman to self-taught musician, avoiding a libel suit in the process.
Disclaimer: all articles containing criticism about English usage contain at least one glaring typo.