Sunday, October 30, 2011

Don't fear the hyphen

So we got a dog recently. And along with dog comes the obligatory trip to Petco, the animal equivalent to the Baby SuperStore: a warehouse full of everything for the new dog owner. Many dollars later, we walked out with collars, leashes, and treats, treats and more treats.

Several days later, we returned to the store for our first training session, where we learned that we need four levels of treats, ranging from everyday kibble to such prime people-food as leftover steak, in order to get our dogs to perform certain tricks and commands. Based on this information, I went home armed with even more new treats, including this bag:

Now, when I first looked at this, I sighed as I recognized another example of the apparently hyphen-phobic marketers out there -- the same ones who sell Tall Kitchen Garbage Bags. My husband and I have joked about this for years: Are they bags for tall kitchen garbage? Or garbage bags for tall kitchens? Or tall bags for kitchen garbage? As written, it's ambiguous and could mean any of those things -- except, of course, that none of those make sense.

But in the case of Small Dog Training Treats, without a hyphen there is true ambiguity about what exactly is contained inside. I thought about this briefly as I picked it off the shelf. "Well, it must be dog-training treats that are small," I thought (and, yes, I include hyphens when I think). "But aren't all dog-training treats small? It couldn't mean dog-training treats for small dogs -- unless they're smaller for their smaller mouths?" I decided it was just another case of redundancy and tossed them in the basket.

When I got home, I opened the package, and in doing so noticed that on the back of the bag was a picture and text indicating that these treats were indeed made for small dogs. We have a large dog, so I was not intending to buy small-dog training treats but rather small dog-training treats. 

So I reached into the bag to see how these treats were different, and the kicker is, they're exactly the same size as all of our other training treats, which don't indicate what size dog they're for. Color me confused.

Anyway, our large dog eats the small-dog treats just as eagerly as she does the others, so it's not a big deal. But please do your part and use the hyphen to eliminate any confusion for your readers. Or, if you yourself are confused by this entire post, just use this as your take-away: Don't try marketing anything tall or small.

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