E side Writing RoomIf you’re a writer, you learn editing is vital. You can do that first copy edit and proofread ’til the cows come home (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase), thinking I’m a good reader and writer; this will be easy. You eventually learn of the visual completion the eye does for your own writing. There are always omissions and errors.

Sooner or later with average income or finely honed bartering skills you hire an editor, one who is both skilled and impartial to get the best manuscript completion. An added skill, though not on their résumé, may be a bit of OCD in his or her DNA. Prior to the hiring era, you read, revise, edit, and proofread multiple times.

I conquered editing, but it involved a pretty steep learning curve. My spelling was fine thanks to Mrs. Horner, fifth grade teacher, Lakeside School, Merrick NY. Early years of reading under the bedcovers by the light of a very dim flashlight gave me the “It just didn’t look right” approach to spelling, a learning device which Mrs. Horner supported. “Good readers make good spellers.” My punctuation skills were better than average, so I thought.

The finer points of editing opened portals to a whole new world. Em dashes, en dashes, ellipses, semi-colons with independent clauses, the nuances for the apostrophe (often called a snobbish comma), the one hundred uses for the down-to-earth comma, and hyphens.

I give hyphens their just due recalling the importance that lone little horizontal symbol holds in my personal life. If it’s important enough to be in dictionaries, and the Chicago Manual of Style has more documents about it online than I found I had patience to count, plus more than twenty uses of the hyphen in their 15th printed edition, then this mark is important enough to fight for. One small, but powerful punctuation mark.

Here’s my story.

A Choice

In 1971, I married for the first time. This was my coming-of-age era and it embraced question authority, do it your way, I am Woman. I was leaving my maiden name, Ethel Erickson, behind. Or was I?

I decide I wanted to keep my maiden name and add my newly married name, Lee, to the last name with the use of a hyphen. It meant notifying every legal institution I could think of about my exciting news, but mainly changing my Social Security card, drivers license, and insurance and pension documents. Surprisingly, the biggest resistance came from my local teaching organization. Because they knew me personally I guess it gave rights to question my choice. “But why don’t you just be Mrs. Lee? What’s with the hyphen, Ethel Erickson-Lee?”

The resistance crawled up the ladder of educational organizations to the state pension. “No problem, but we’ll have to charge you $25.00 (I think) for the change.” Recall I am Woman? I negotiated; I held firm. This is who I am. They agreed. I got my name with the hyphen, no charge.

When my first husband died, I held onto Lee as a way to honor him. Years later I married again. Ethel Erickson-Lee-Miller. This was getting long. When I found out Hank’s middle name was actually Lee, I took it as a sign. Keep the Lee, drop the Erickson. I would always be an Erickson genetically. His Lee was the middle name. My Lee part of the last name. With that one small exception of the hyphen our names were the same. Hyphen. Top row of the keyboard, right side, two keys to the left of the backspace key. Above it is the underscore symbol. Just zip in a bit of a half-dash in mine. Ethel Lee-Miller.

This time local and state education organizations moved with times and got that hyphen right in there. But medical companies and insurances disregarded it, actually telling me the computers were not set up to recognize the hyphen. I was LEEMILLER, or Ethel (first name), Lee (middle name), Miller (last name), or Ethel Le Miller, Ethel LEMiller, L. Miller. I’m sure there are thousands of hyphen champions out there with a similar situation. Don’t give up! You can triumph! Own your names and what they symbolize for you.

I have my script set for these situations. “Lee is part of my last name. It is not the middle name.” I spell each name out and then repeat all the names. “Ethel space Lee-hyphen Miller.”

I have forged relationships with application folks at mortgage companies, financial institutions, medical labs, lawyers doing wills, motor vehicle offices, and credit card numbers. When it is suggested that I drop one of the names to save space I quote the Chicago Manual of Style. “Hyphens eliminate ambiguity…” ‘“A hyphenated last name should never be shorn of one of its elements.’ It’s Ethel Lee-Miller, thank you.”

My names have followed me to Arizona. Mail comes addressed to Ethel Miller, Ethel Le Miller, Elle Miller, Ethyl Miller, and my very favorite, Ethel Lee-Miller.

I send a virtual hug to the passport employee at the US Department of State who included a handwritten, yes handwritten note with my new passport reminding me to “make sure you put that hyphen in. You leave it out you could be a whole ‘nother person.”

Hyphenated folks, keep the almighty hyphen!


Ethel is always open to ideas for relationship stories. Read more in her book Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.