Janice Hall Heck

Finding hope in a chaotic world…

A to Z Challenge, 2014: Hyperventilating on Hyphens

atoz [2014] - BANNER - 910

Oh Heck! More Quirky Writing Errors

June Casagrande, author of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, titles her chapter about hyphens this way:

Hyphens: Life-Sucking, Mom-and Apple-Pie-Hating, Mime-Loving, Nerd-Fight-Inciting Daggers of the Damned

Many people would agree with that assessment. There are just too many rules for hyphens.

Hyphens get nine full pages of coverage in the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Following an introduction of nine general principles, CMOS then lists out over 100 specific points related to words or phrases that need or don’t hyphens. That sounds like enough to make you hyperventilate. Let’s try to simplify some of that.


My sister just sent me a childhood picture of the six girls in my family. This picture makes me smile.

Kroey sisters. back row L to R  Joyce, Joanne, Shirley. Front row L to R: Beverley, Judie, Janice

Back row L to R: Joyce, Joanne, Shirley.
Front row L to R: Beverley, Judie, Janice

I can only guess at our ages in the picture: eighteen-year-old Joyce, seventeen-year-old Joanne, fourteen-year-old Shirley, eleven-year-old Beverley, seven-year-old Judie, and little five-year-old me.

Note three things about these ages:

  1. Use hyphens on ages. Omission of hyphens on ages is a common error in the drafts of articles for our community newsletter.
  2. Newspapers generally use numerals for ages according to their own style sheet. Use the style of the publication for which you are writing.
    9-year-old brother
    11-year-old sister
    3-year-old bobcat
  3. When talking about an age group, use a hyphen and space after the first age group:
    The five- to ten-year-olds had a field day at the park.
    The school has classes for three-, four-, and five-year-old children.

…talking to a classroom of six-year-olds about dinosaurs definitely beats talking to a room full of adults about politics.   WE ARE TEACHERS    (blog), “12 Reasons Teachers Have the Best Job in the World”

tumblr_inline_n30dmjBRVx1ri33kd classroom

Why add hyphens when using numbers?  To ensure clarity.

eleven year olds  or  eleven-year-olds

Is it eleven children who are each one-year-old, or is one child who is eleven-years-old? The hyphens clarify.

Other ages:  five-and-a-half-year-old girl, four-month-old baby, seventy-five-year-old man

Note: if the age comes after the noun, do not use hyphens.

The baby is four months old.
Sarah is ten years old.
The gentleman is seventy-five years old. (Use the hyphen on the compound number only.)

Use Hyphens On Time:

The fourteen-year-old girl took a four-week class on babysitting at the YMCA.

photo credit: commons.wikipedia.org

photo credit: commons.wikipedia.org

How about making spaghetti sauce? How long should you cook it?

But for those cooks in the know, breaking down a Jersey tomato into a five-hour sauce is a no-no….Blasphemy,” says Robert Bell, executive chef of the group that runs Gourmet Italian Cuisine, The Carriage House catering hall and Sweet Gourmet Bakery, all in Galloway Township (NJ). “A good Jersey tomato you just eat like an apple, in my opinion.”      Felicia Compian, “Gourmet for the Whole Family,”  The Press of Atlantic City,  July 23, 2013:

Use Hyphens On Sizes:  

a nine-by-twelve rug

Use Hyphens and Numerals on Measurements
12-story, stainless steel model of the Earth
10-foot-tall ladder

How much is civic pride worth? In Whatley, Mass., at least $650. That’s how much the local historical society spent to refurbish a 20-foot-tall concrete milk jug in the middle of town. The group felt it important the bottle be in tip-top shape because it’s the “symbol of Whatly.”   AP news brief, “Milk makeover,” The Press of Atlantic City, NJ, July 23, 2013

Use Hyphens On Compound Numbers from Twenty-one through Ninety-nine.

twenty-four,    thirty-three,      ninety-two,       two hundred ninety-two,    five hundred

Be sure to check the style guidelines for different genres to see how numbers whether numbers should be spelled out. Newspapers generally spell out numbers from one to nine, but even that is not consistent with all newspapers. Otherwise, write out numbers above 100.

On fractions:    one-quarter , one-half, two-thirds majority, half-inch

The boys ate three-quarters of the pizza before dinner.

Hyphenated words can be tricky, but if you develop an eye for them by finding them in your reading material, you will master them. For review, read my previous posts on hyphens:
D is for Deep-Fried Hyphens
F is for Freshly Squeezed Adverbs
G is for Gobs of Hyphens Used Correctly

And just for fun, here is a picture of my mother and her sisters. Mom is top row, third person.

Mom and her sisters  1930 maybe


Your turn: What quirky errors do you find in writing? Which ones annoy you the most?

Janice Hall Heck is a retired educator and now nitpicky editor of On the Horizon, a bi-monthly community newsletter for Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, NJ.


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14 thoughts on “A to Z Challenge, 2014: Hyperventilating on Hyphens

  1. I love the quote on hyphens. It made me laugh. I love that your challenge posts are on grammar. I recently started an editing business, and thought of doing this for the challenge or even my blog in general. (It has been grossly neglected for months.) But I didn’t really know how to go about it, so I tried something else for the challenge. I think it’s really cool that you are blogging on grammar. Can’t wait to read more of your stuff!

    • Thanks, Rhonda. I, too, have neglected my blog for the last few months, but the AtoZ is getting me back into the habit. That, and now I am home at my own computer after being away for several months without regular Internet access.

      • I wish I could blame no regular internet access for my neglect. No regular brain access is probably more accurate for me!
        I hope getting back in the habit goes well for you!

      • Thanks, Rhonda. I can’t use that excuse next year when I snowbird to Florida. I now know how to get a hot spot on my smart phone! I’ve had this phone for two years, but it took my sister-in-law sitting me down and showing me about all this hot spot business. The AtoZ Challenge is helping me get back in the habit of regular posting, but that ends on April 30. Then I’m on my own. Oh well. We’ll see. Thanks for visiting my blog again.

  2. Victoria on said:

    Great to see you in the A-Z Challenge!

  3. Hi. I tried to leave a comment earlier today and the whole thing disappeared before I could post it. I was congratulating you on another good post. It seems strange that so much can be written about such a small piece of punctuation, but I can see where you’re coming from.
    My quirk for today, is the misuse of numbers. Apart from publication guidelines for certain magazines, there are some basic guidelines, but from what I’ve seen in recent times, there are few folk who pay heed, or even realise their existence.

    • Hyphens are real troublemakers for some, but I like them. As for your quirk for the day, numbers, the guidelines vary according to publication, as you noted, but as you know, many free-for-all variations exist on Internet. Keep those quirks coming!

  4. Interesting take. I tend to break it down as to whether it’s an adjectival phrase (before the noun) or not. Except when an ‘-ly’ adverb is in play. Holds for numerical phrases and otherwise. 🙂

    • HI Ellen, Nice to hear from you again. I have been off-duty for a while because of lack of regular Internet access away from home. I also noted that you have switched to MacBook Air, a move I am contemplating as well. My PC has been giving me fits for several months now.

      • Yes, several factors have led to it. There’s a bit of a learning curve and adjustment to new software, but I rationalised the same would be true if I went to windows 8 (from XP)!

  5. Thanks for dropping by and liking one of my posts on the A to Z. Interesting piece by the way. 🙂

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