"Bob," said the telephone voice, "I'm at the end of my rope. I'm a seventh grade teacher in Fairfax County, and I'm always telling my students that a big newspaper like The Washington Post takes great care with proper punctuation."

"Were you born yesterday," I interjected, "or was it the day before?"

"It was a lot of yesterdays ago," the voice said. "And in all that time, I've never seen so many incorrect hyphenations as I've seen in The Post lately."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Like 'thing' spelled tee-aitch-hyphen-eye-en-gee. I even saw 'but' spelled bee-hyphen-you-tee. Can't you do anything?"

No, Voice, I can't do anything single-handedly. My knowledge of the computers that produce this newspaper is beneath minimal, if there is such a place. But since you and a lot of other readers are jarred by the likes of th-ing and b-ut every morning, I asked Rich Martin to put together an explanation.

Rich's stationery says he is the manager of our computer system. He's actually a saint. He has to be. All day long, he sits in his office and holds court for frazzled reporters and editors who have just watched three hours of Pulitzer Prize-winning work disappear from their computer screens. The language they tend to use isn't hyphenated in the slightest.

Inevitably, Rich's memo was addressed "To: Bob Leve-y." Here are the guts of what it said:

"We are constantly changing the programs in the system and some changes inadvertently change working programs that should be left alone. Unfortunately, that was the case recently and the change caused a considerable perturbation in the hyphenation dictionary stored in the computer.

"The problem was discovered early but the solution lagged far behind. Raytheon (the system's manufacturer) has fixed the problem and we should not experience the one- word hyphenations again; however, more changes are over the horizon and the possibilities abound."

In other words, Voice, live for the moment, and tell your seventh-graders to do the same. Tomorrow may bring t-h-i-n-g.