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"not-so-distant past" or "not so distant past

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"not-so-distant past" or "not so distant past

Postby dsteve54 » Sun Feb 14, 2010 11:22 pm

Which is correct:
"not-so-distant past"
or
"not so distant past"
?

I have always written:
"not-so-distant past"
to indicate one adjective modifier of "past".

But it may be the case that "not so" is a standalone adverbial phrase modifying "distant", and as such, hyphens may not be needed.

I could not seem to find the construct in unabridged dictionaries, but perhaps there is just not a main entry, and it is embedded elsewhere. I searched on the internet and there was approximately equal distribution of people writing "not-so-distant past" and "not so distant past". Or at least, I did not see a decisive inclination.

I could not seem to find direct treatment in grammar discussions of the expression, but maybe I did not have a good search strategy.

I suppose the same question would apply to other adjectives:
"not-so-little object" vs. "not so little object".

Or perhaps, could it be the case that using "not so/not-so" is simply bad grammar? In many contexts, "not so/not-so" seems colloquial (e.g. "not-so-hot"/"not so hot"). But I have recalled hearing "not-so/too-distant" used in a journalistic register. I just cannot recall the rendering in print.

Thanks in advance for the help.
Last edited by dsteve54 on Sun Feb 14, 2010 11:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Slava » Sun Feb 14, 2010 11:36 pm

I'm not so sure the question here is about "not so" with or without the hyphen. I do believe it's the hyphen itself.

For example, in a recent magazine article I came across a phrase that almost threw me. It spoke of a bench that was of a size commonly used in laboratories. It was a bench that was laboratory sized. A "lab sized-bench." Do we need a second, or would it be first, hyphen here? "Lab-sized bench," "lab-sized-bench." All three seem to be acceptable.

Personally, I'd go for using all the hyphens available. However....
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Postby dsteve54 » Sun Feb 14, 2010 11:58 pm

Slava wrote:I'm not so sure the question here is about "not so" with or without the hyphen. I do believe it's the hyphen itself.

For example, in a recent magazine article I came across a phrase that almost threw me. It spoke of a bench that was of a size commonly used in laboratories. It was a bench that was laboratory sized. A "lab sized-bench." Do we need a second, or would it be first, hyphen here? "Lab-sized bench," "lab-sized-bench." All three seem to be acceptable.

Personally, I'd go for using all the hyphens available. However....


Ugh, well, I guess it is possible to say "sized-bench" to indicate "bench that has been sized". In that case, a "lab sized-bench" would be a "bench that has been sized, and by the way, it is a bench meant for a laboratory".

Then, we can say "lab-sized bench" to mean "bench that has been sized for a laboratory".

Is there a semantic distinction between the two? I'm actually not sure. I would say that "lab sized-bench" COULD mean a bench that was "sized for a 'room'" before it was even under consideration for a laboratory.

But I would say a "lab-sized bench" was a bench that was built all along with existence in a lab as part of the design consideration.

So I think both expressions are possible, but I think there are nuances in meaning. But that would just be my interpretation if I were to see those in writing, assuming the person "knew what he wanted to say". In speech I would actually have to pause, "lab (pause) sized-bench" vs. "lab-sized bench".

I am not sure there is anything morphologically, syntactically, or in punctuation that would preclude either phrase.

I am wondering, though, if that is of a different category of question than "not too/so" vs. "not-too/so". I do not see an "adverbial" aspect to YOUR example; they all seem to be adjective descriptors. It is a good question in its own right, but I am not sure it can be served up as being in the same genre.

Am still puzzled about my original, and worse yet, I am trying to explain "regret" and "regretted" to a Russian. So I have to talk about TWO events in the past (the past event of regretting" and the "past event of the action that was regretted")...I started to say "distant past" and "not-so-distant past" and then I could not translate those phrases into Russian because I could not even find them in English
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Postby bnjtokyo » Mon Feb 15, 2010 2:50 am

H. W. Fowler has a 3-page treatise on hyphens which I will not attempt to summarize here. I will quote the first sentence: "No attempt will be made here to describe modern English usage in the matter of hyphens; its infinite varity defies description."

He points out that the omission of the hyphen would radically alter the meaning of the following:

"There is a stoge as well as sublimity hidden away in Bach's 200-odd cantatas."

In the "not so distant past" does the omission of hyphens change the meaning? If not, they are not needed and should be omitted.
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Postby saparris » Mon Feb 15, 2010 8:28 am

Which is correct: "not-so-distant past" or "not so distant past"?


I would choose "not-so-distant past," since the three words, not, so, and distant, work together as a single modifier of the word past. For the same reason, I would write "lab-sized bench.

I was taught that, when multiple words come together to form a single modifier, the hyphenation of these words indicates such. Whether the the meaning is clear without the hyphens is not--according the very traditional rules of punctuation--a good reason to eliminate them.

I suppose that one could take a hyphenate-according-to-clarity approach as opposed to a hyphenate-according-to-the-rule approach, but I am not personally one of those "ones."
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Postby sluggo » Mon Feb 15, 2010 4:24 pm

I agree more with Saparris. Omitting the hyphens and leaving not so distant past might technically not be misleading, but it requires the reader to slow down and reanalyze that the first three words are intended as a group. The hyphens make that obvious and therefore, a smoother read.

Lab sized-bench makes no sense. The adjective would be lab-sized.

Butterfield's book Damp Squid goes a bit into this, mentioning the contrasts:

twenty-odd men / twenty odd men
a pickled-herring merchant / a pickled herring merchant
and even extramarital sex / extra marital sex :!:

Then there are mergers which have no reason to stay separate-- does anyone remember when cooperate was spelt co-operate or even coöperate?

The aforementioned work notes that US English is less hyphen-friendly than British, on examples such as take-off, re-enter, coat-tails and part-time (they also note the example de-ice, but IMHO that there's a different flavour, as it would run two sounded vowels together).

In the case of takeoff, the word is hyphenated 80% of the time in the UK and unhyphenated 80% of the time in the U.S.
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Postby dsteve54 » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:15 pm

My initial reaction was the reasoning put forth by Saparris and shored-up by Sluggo. I had always thought that was a cluster of words that needed to be "conjoined" into one adjective modifier, as in my original question of "not-too-distant". To not put hyphens there seemed akin to saying
"23 year old girl" instead of "23-year-old girl".

However, I began to doubt myself when the internet searches showed sort of a split decision. And to ME, "not too/so" in "not-too-distant" could be construed as an adverb modifier of an adjective.
We say, "That is not so often done" easily enough, NOT "That is not-so-often done", which would instantly be recognized as incorrect. So why should I suddenly want to say "not-so-distant" vs. "not so distant".

I began to doubt myself....the real problem is that I could not find a translation of "not-so-distant"/"not-too-distant" as such into Russian....I may have to talk around it "time that is in the past"; "time that is more in the past", etc.

But then the other contributor brought up "lab sized-bench" vs. "lab-sized bench". Well, the words involved are all adjectives so that is a horse of a different color.
I COULD see the possibility of actually being GRAMMATICALLY permissible to say "lab sized-bench" and
"lab-sized bench" and have each imply a slightly different information content, as I mentioned. But imagine saying those in a lecture. If uttered, one would tend to hear "lab-sized bench" unless all sort of contrivances were used:

"lab [pause] sized-bench" or "lab [air-quote] sized-bench [air-quote]" ha ha (such pantomined quotes remind me of Tyrannosaurus Rex vestigal "arms".

I think I would be "talking around it" rather than saying "lab sized-bench".

But to me, "not-too-distant past" vs "not too distant past".....hmmm, I am STILL confused because of the ADVERBIAL characteristics....
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Postby dsteve54 » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:17 pm

......maybe it is a question I will pose on Chicago Manual of Style site also and see what happens there.
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Postby saparris » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:25 pm

The hyphens make that obvious and therefore, a smoother read.


And that is reason enough to use the hyphens in multiple-word modifiers--or any form of punctuation, for that matter.

We don't punctuate just to practice our jots and tittles. We punctuate to make our writing better than it would be otherwise.
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Postby sluggo » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:27 pm

I couldn't help noticing that Doctor Goodword, in the Good Word entry veracity, hyphenated the word widespread as "wide-spread".

The proofreader in me originally merged it into the single word, but then I undid the deed in case Doc meant something subliminal there.

editors should be light of hand...
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Postby sluggo » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:40 pm

dsteve54 wrote:We say, "That is not so often done" easily enough, NOT "That is not-so-often done", which would instantly be recognized as incorrect. So why should I suddenly want to say "not-so-distant" vs. "not so distant".


Most obviously, done is a verb, which makes not-so-often an adverb; while not-so-distant, modifying past) is an adjective. Maybe that's it?


dsteve54 wrote:I began to doubt myself....the real problem is that I could not find a translation of "not-so-distant"/"not-too-distant" as such into Russian....I may have to talk around it "time that is in the past"; "time that is more in the past", etc.


Not knowing much about Russian but knowing it thinks of negatives differently than English-- in a reinforcing rather than a balancing way-- might this be a difference? We love to use negatives to round off the edges of definity (and yeah, I just made that word up) as in "not unlike" and "not unwelcome".

dsteve54 wrote: But then the other contributor brought up "lab sized-bench" vs. "lab-sized bench". Well, the words involved are all adjectives so that is a horse of a different color.
I COULD see the possibility of actually being GRAMMATICALLY permissible to say "lab sized-bench" and
"lab-sized bench" and have each imply a slightly different information content...


You really can't do that, because while "lab-sized" does convey an idea (what size it is), there is AFAIK no such thing as a "size-bench". Ergo the hyphen can only be used in the first pair. They're not all adjectives; bench is the noun the other two modify, as I see it.
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Postby saparris » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:47 pm

I would also add that, on the not too distant future vs. not-too-distant future question, not-too-distant could simply be an idiomatic expression.

We don't say or write, "in the too-distant future" (or "in the so-distant future"). Therefore, we might also infer that, since not-too-distant is not a negative form of too-distant, it can be nothing other than an idiom.

Food for thought.
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Postby Slava » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:58 pm

Going back to the bench, is this a bench that is the size of a lab (lab-size), or is it one of a size one would generally expect to find in a lab (lab-size)?

As to the Russian, would not "nedavno" work? Or "V nedavnykh vremenakh."
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Postby sluggo » Mon Feb 15, 2010 5:59 pm

Sure it's an idiom, but I think this is just part of English's penchant (especially British it seems) for stating some things indirectly or in an inside-out way.

There's no particular reason to have a phrase like "the too-distant future", but when we introduce the idea of distance, while at the same time contradict it with not-too, we have both spelled out the grand dimensions and simultaneously limited them. A kind of paralipsis.

Which is kinda cool we can do that 8)
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Postby sluggo » Mon Feb 15, 2010 6:04 pm

Slava-- good point, and that eluded me before. In the phrase, the bench could be at least three sizes, even without changing the hyphen:

- a bench the size of an entire laboratory (impressive but impractical)
- a bench of a suitable size for use in a laboratory (prolly what the term means but technically not what it says)
- a bench the size of a Labrador Retriever (hey, it's possible-- what if you're a veterinarian?)

They should have just thrown out "sized" altogether. Lab bench.
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