Cooperatives, chicken coops and the war on the use of the hyphen

Coop Bank

Co-operative Bank’s Gikomba branch  in Nairobi in 2020. The NMG Manual of Style and Usage does not require ‘cooperate’ to be hyphenated but says ‘Co-operative Bank’ should be.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The NMG Manual of Style and Usage lists words that should or should not be hyphenated.
  • But it appears most Nation writers either don’t follow the manual, or they interpret it differently.

Labourn Minishi, an expert on co-operatives, complains that Nation columnist Isaac Nyamongo “invariably misspells the word co-operative”. Prof Nyamongo, an anthropologist, is also a deputy vice-chancellor at the Co-operative University of Kenya. He has written 15 articles on the co-operative movement so far. In all of them, he uses the unhyphenated “cooperative”.

I’ll use the hyphenated version — not to suggest Prof Nyamongo is wrong but for convenience. Neither of the two spellings is better. It’s a question of style, preference and consistency and what works in context.

Mr Minishi’s arguments are also based on style, preference and consistence and what’s presumed to be conventional or works in the Kenyan context. “I wonder what message the good professor is sending to students, as well as co-operators, in Kenya and beyond, given that he is based at the highest institution of learning on co-operative studies in the country. Since their inception in Kenya in 1908 and when, in the mid 1940s, co-operative legislation was introduced in this country, it is the hyphenated version that is always used.”

“Prof Nyamongo should understand that the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), the custodian of global values and principles on co-operatives, has, since its inception in 1895, insisted on the hyphenated version for ‘co-operation’ and ‘co-operative’.”

The Hyphen War

Mr Minishi, a former ICA project manager and communicator in Nairobi, says he knows what he’s talking about. “I write as a former employee of the ICA, co-operative economist, lecturer and vice-principal/director of studies at the former Co-operative College of Kenya. Besides, I am an author of books on the subject, including Understanding Co-operatives in Africa, a Handbook for Students in Colleges and Universities.”

This disagreement over the use of the hyphen is not of the same magnitude as The Hyphen War — the political fight over whether to hyphenate Czechoslovakia or not. The country is made up of two ethnic groups — the Czechs and Slovaks. Slovak politicians felt the solid spelling of the name Czechoslovakia didn’t give Slovaks equal status. After the fall of the Communist government in 1989, they demanded the country’s name be hyphenated as Czecho-Slovak Republic.

But, as Mr Minishi insists, to hyphenate or not to hyphenate co-operative is not a trivial matter. It’s necessary to have consistency, professionalism and standardisation. Readers should have the same consistency experience, regardless of who writes the material.

But the nomenclature is not standardised, showing a lack of professional or intellectual rigour and punctiliousness. For example, on the Co-operative University of Kenya website, academic papers and official write-ups use “co-operative” and “cooperative” interchangeably, even in the same articles. The same for the official website of CAK. Only the Co-operative Societies Act is consistent; it hyphenates “co-operative” throughout.

Co-operative vs cooperative

Words are hyphenated for reasons such as to aid readability and understanding. If you use the short form of the unhyphenated “cooperative”, you end up with “coop”. If you read the Nation headline, “State prosecutor defends Coop Bank in fraud case against Kidero”, you might wonder whether that’s a new bank in town for chicken farmers. “Coop” could mean a chicken house. To avoid unintended meaning, hyphenate the short form to read “co-op”. But if you start off with the hyphenated “co-operative”, you wouldn’t have the same problem in the short form.

Mr Minishi and Prof Nyamongo expect the Nation to give “some direction” on the matter. The NMG Manual of Style and Usage lists words that should or should not be hyphenated. It reads: “cooperate: No hyphen, but Co-operative Bank.” It doesn’t state whether “cooperative”, standing alone, should be hyphenated. But what’s good for the bank should be good for other co-operatives.

But it appears most Nation writers either don’t follow the manual, or they interpret it differently. For every 100 mentions of co-operative in Nation stories, 57 are unhyphenated. This shows the Nation is also inconsistent.

Editors should provide guidance in interpreting the manual and enforcing it.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264

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