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The Copy Shop: Why hyphenation of dual heritage terms has been a point of contention in newsrooms

(Nicole Nobre/Daily Bruin)

By Anush Khatri

April 26, 2019 1:23 p.m.

Welcome to the Copy Shop – the platform for members of Daily Bruin Copy to rant about the Oxford comma, discuss sensitivity in mass media and attempt to generally demystify the mind-boggling and all-too-misunderstood world of the copy editor.

At the end of March, The Associated Press once again shook the world of copy editing to its core with the announcement of new revisions to AP style.

The percent sign is now AP-approved. Compound modifiers no longer need hyphens. Data is now only a singular.

But one change, in particular, caused a lot of debate at the Daily Bruin Copy desk – the decision to remove the hyphen from terms indicating dual heritage. For example, where there once was a hyphen between “Asian” and “American” in the term Asian American, AP style now asks that it be there no more.

Though the fact that some people can get worked up about this small decision to hyphenate or not can seem confusing to some, it allows us to look into one’s personal identity, what it means to people to be American, and the United States’ long and contentious history of how newcomers should integrate into American society.

Back during the major waves of immigration into the U.S. during the 19th century, much like today, there was considerable anxiety in some corners of American society about the increasing numbers of immigrants coming into America and how these new immigrants would integrate into society. Immigrants and their children would become the subject of nativist political rhetoric, with one of the more common charges against them being that they were “hyphenated Americans.”

With new immigrants being incorporated into urban political machines, typically centered around ethnicity, nativists started to fear that increasing immigration would start to harm the future of American democracy. Politicians such as former Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also started to adopt the term “hyphenated American” as part of nativist rhetoric, especially as the U.S. started to move into World War I, with so-called hyphenated Americans being accused of “not an American at all” and “(carrying) a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this republic whenever he gets ready.”

These accusations of dual loyalty and anti-Americanism started to lead immigrant organizations to drop the hyphen in their names, especially in runup to World War II, with the Japanese American Citizens League choosing to not use the hyphen because it did not want to give the idea that Japanese Americans might be disloyal as tensions between the U.S. and Japan increased.

To this day, that legacy of nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment around the hyphen has informed the decisions by many journalist associations of people of color to ditch the hyphen when it comes to descriptors of dual heritage, with Asian American Journalists Association, in particular, citing Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 speech as an example of why the hyphen might be pejorative.

Of course, history isn’t the only reason there’s been a tide against the hyphen. Identity also plays a major role, with some saying that the hyphen implies a split identity, that people identify as being both American and from their country of origin. Under this rationale, removing the hyphen allows for the country of origin to just be another adjective used to describe the type of American is – no different from being a college-educated American, a liberal American or any other type of descriptor one could use.

There have been several arguments in favor of using the hyphen – for some recent immigrants and their descendants, the hyphen can help them from having to feel like they have to disregard what they might consider to be an integral part of their identity. Instead of having to choose between one nationality or another, the hyphen allows for compromise and recognizes the complexity that sometimes comes with immigrant identity.

For some, the hyphen is also a symbol of American inclusion, that Americans are accepting of other cultures and that you don’t have to lose your other national identities in order to feel like an American.

Much like a lot of other style rules, news and professional organizations remain divided on whether to use the hyphen or not. While the AP, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Los Angeles Times have decided to drop the hyphen, others like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal continue to keep it on.

Ultimately, the Daily Bruin decided to follow the lead of the AP and leave the hyphen to the past, but it still remains one of the more contested style rules in newsrooms.


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Anush Khatri | Alumnus
Khatri was the Daily Bruin Copy chief from 2018-2019. He was previously a slot editor in 2017-2018, Copy staffer and Copy contributor. He was also a News contributor.
Khatri was the Daily Bruin Copy chief from 2018-2019. He was previously a slot editor in 2017-2018, Copy staffer and Copy contributor. He was also a News contributor.
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