Thursday, February 7, 2008

Is it "science fiction writer" or "science-fiction writer"?

Interesting question, and it came up today as I was asked to vet ad copy for something I'm involved with.

The genre is "science fiction," with no hyphen, but when used in the phrase "science fiction writer," "science fiction" then becomes a compound adjective (two or more words that together form a single modifier for a following noun), and so, according to many authorities, they should be hyphenated: "science-fiction writer."

The classic example from Strunk and White's The Elements of the Style is this: "He was a member of the leisure class and he enjoyed leisure-class pursuits."

(How can you tell if two words are a compound adjective? My trick is to rerverse the order and see if they still make sense: "a big red ball" and "a red big ball" are equally comprehensible (although the former perhaps comes more trippingly to the tongue), but while "a science fiction writer" makes sense, "a fiction science writer" does not.)

For many years, one of the principal academic journals in the field, Science Fiction Studies, rendered its name with the hyphen: Science-Fiction Studies. Eventually, though, the editors apparently decided their journal was stuffy and pedantic enough without being picayune about punctuation in the title. :)

And for a time, SFWA was styling its name as "Science-fiction and Fantasy Writers of America," although that seemed more out of a desire to preserve what I call their "burnt-matchstick" logo after the decision was made to add "and Fantasy" to the organization's name; the full name is now mostly styled without the hyphen and with two capital Fs.

I tend to use "science-fiction writer" (and "science-fiction novel," etc.), in normal prose, but on my web site, I usually don't hyphenate the phrase, as I want all search engines to find me when people search for science fiction writer.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At February 07, 2008 7:15 PM , Anonymous don said...

When I first read "a fiction science writer" I thought it made perfect sense. So I was going to explain why I thought it made sense. Then I realized that my brain was actually reading it as "a fictional science writer". Which does make perfect sense (hyphenated or not) as it now becomes something entirely different and is the meaning of how I originally read it.

And the upshot of all this? I have no idea. It's just a passing comment.

Are you buried in snow? We're not, he he he.

At February 08, 2008 12:47 AM , Blogger Josh said...

Speaking as a copy editor, while my personal preference is "science-fiction writer" (mostly, maybe, because copy editors love adding hyphens), "science fiction writer" should be fine 95 percent of the time, since there's not really any way to misread it -- i.e., it's not like, say, "high quality student," which could refer to a student of high quality or to a quality student practicing extracurricular activities of a dubious nature. ;-)


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