Hyphen Alert! The Oregonian spots an error

There I was last Saturday staring down my morning paper, trying to coerce it into dispensing some real news, when right there on the front page was this headline: "Wait-here for blooper" (Available online with the more-appropriate headline, "Portland bike box rolls out an error: Wait-here for the misused hyphen") The story (I think I can call it that) was a tale of punctuating woe on the streets of Portland, where work crews are busy installing bike boxes at certain intersections around town in an effort to create a safer environment for cyclists.

But . . . holy cow! Look at the picture and notice that something's gone very wrong here. This bike box sports an errant hyphen. To The Oregonian the extra hyphen may as well be an extra chromosome, and it's time to call on some local reporter to phone up Jeff Rubin and tell us, please tell us, that we're not wrong. Jeff doesn't fail us, of course. "Wait-here sign" would be OK, Jeff says, but on its own, "Wait here" should not be hyphenated.

There's no defense for the poor crew that inserted this hyphen (Portland traffic engineer
Rob Burchfield insists, "We did not design it that way"). But I would like to point out that the workers did not operate purely out of ignorance. I was struck by their justification for introducing the hyphen into the design: Burchfield tells us that "when the crews went to lay it out, they put the graphic down on the asphalt and they felt like 'wait here' ran together [motorists would puzzle over the instruction to WAITHERE]. They felt like they needed to put something in there so your eyes would see 'wait' and 'here.' " In other words, the crew made an conscious editorial decision to put in a hyphen, and therein, perhaps, is a little salvation in the saga of the catastrophic hyphen.

When it comes to editing, I often tell people that my job is not to make correct calls, but to justify the calls I make. That's an exaggeration, of course--some things are just wrong, but it is a big factor. In this case, I'd like to call for cutting the crew a little slack. They were out there making their own style guide on the fly, developing a rule that said, in effect, "A hyphen may be inserted between words painted on to the road if eliminating the hyphen would make the words run too closely together, causing (possibly) more confusion than the extra hyphen would." To The Oregonian (and, by the way, to Amy Ruiz at the Portland Mercury blog (be sure to read the comment there by Gary Raisman of the Portland Office of Transporation)) I say we cool it on the criticism. It could, after all, have been worse. They could have gone the quotation mark route.

Over at BikePortland.org, commenter Adam questions the whole phraseology: "One of my concerns is that it says 'Wait Here.' I'm concerned that some drivers may stop where there are supposed to and then move forward into the bike box if there are no cyclists in it. It needs to have a sign like many other intersections that says 'stop here on red.'
" I don't necessarily agree with Adam that drivers will be confused, but I prefer questioning the content over questioning the style, and his point does remind us all, once again, that painting instructions on roads is quite a bit trickier than it might seem.

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