Misuse of Connective Symbols with Numbers

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, a connective symbol is employed in a reference to numbers or numerical values, but the usage is incorrect. Explanation of the error, and a revision of the error, follows each example.

1. Open enrollment for 2018 runs from November 1 – December 15.

A connective symbol linking two values in a number range functions as a replacement for from and to (or between and and), not just the latter word (though only to is pronounced when the number range is read aloud, hence the confusion), so do not precede a number range formatted this way with from (or between): “Open enrollment for 2018 runs November 1–December 15.” If the word from is retained, to should replace the symbol. (Note also that the symbol should be an en dash, not a simple hyphen—except when a publication’s style guide specifies use of that symbol—and that no letter spaces should intervene.)

2. Five-thousand service members are expected to participate in the event.

Hyphenation is used in spelled-out numbers only to link two words representing two place values, as in seventy-five. “Five thousand” modifies “service members” but is an open compound: “Five thousand service members are expected to participate in the event.”

Note that large round numbers are often spelled out in isolation but should be treated as figures if other numbers appear in proximity, but numbers should always be spelled out at the head of a sentence. (If doing so is awkward, as in the case of a large precise number such as that representing a year like 2017 that requires more than a couple of words to convey, recast the sentence.)

3. The most fatalities occurred in the 15-24 year old age group.

In most books and in some publications, style would dictate that the numbers in this sentence should be spelled out. However, in other content, or in a case in which using numerals is preferable (as when a concentration of numbers occurs), the phrase in which the figures appear should be treated as shown here: “The most fatalities occurred in the 15- to 24-year-old age group.” (When numbers are spelled out, the sentence should read, “The most fatalities occurred in the fifteen- to twenty-four-year-old age group.”)

The hyphen does not function as a linking symbol connecting two figures in a number range; it links words that are part of a phrasal adjective, an abridgement of “15-year-old to 24-year-old” in which the first instance of “year-old” is omitted because it is clearly implicit. (This tactic, called suspensive hyphenation, renders such phrases more concise and less cluttered. In addition, the sentence can be further pared to “The most fatalities occurred among 15- to 24-year-olds.”)

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4 Responses to “Misuse of Connective Symbols with Numbers”

  • D.A.W.

    Long before I knew much about such things, I had heard about the ENIAC, the UNIVAC, Unimak, and Umiak.
    It turns out that ENIAC and UNIVAC were early digital computers, Unimak is an island in the Aleutians, and a umiak is a kind of hide-covered boat that has been used by the natives all around the edge of the Arctic Ocean (e.g. Canada, Greenland, Russia…) for centuries.

  • D.A.W.

    That is interesting about how to read aloud those Latin abbreviations, and some others: e.g., i.e., etc., HRH, NW, NE, SE, SW, JPL…

    Then there are some short abbreviations, that are to the contrary:
    A.D., B.C., BCE, a.m., p,m,, JP-4, AC [alternating current], DC [direct current], GRE, SAT.
    This drifts us into the whole subject of acronyms and when to pronounce these as words, such as in FEMA, HUD, LEM, MAD, NASA, NATO, radar, sonar, tokomak, UNESCO, UFOlogist, etc.
    This leads us into satire, too. In the movie WAR GAMES, a central character is an intelligent computer called the WOPR, which supposedly meant “War Operation Plan Response”. WOPR is pronounced “Whopper”, as in the “whopper computer” and “a whopper of a war” – Global Thermonuclear War!
    (“How about a nice game of chess?”)
    An earlier, brainy computer was called “Hal” = HAL = Heuristic/ALgorithmic, and earlier than that was ENIAC (“ee-nee-AC”).
    “Open the pod bay doors, please, Hal!”

  • venqax

    On something of a tangent, this brings up the subject of how to pronounce, or “say out loud” certain bits of orthography, like to or through or from when using dashes of hyphenation in numerical ranges. No one would say, “Open enrollment for 2018 runs November 1 en dash December 15.” Yet that is precisely what people do when saying the letters E and G as they read, “Don’t go out in bad weather, e.g. rain.” Or, reading aloud, “The standard number of a baker’s dozen, i.e. thirteen” as, “…eye ee, thirteen.” In a word, No! The two abbreviations, e.g. and i.e. should be read aloud as “for example” and “that is” respectively. Otherwise you will sound quite un-schooled to those who are which is probably exactly the opposite of what you’re going for when you read the letters.

  • D.A.W.

    In many cases, the word “through” is better than “to”. For example, the traditional twelve days of Christmas are December 25th through January 6th — inclusive.
    If you have been inoculated against cardinal numbers, then you can leave out “st”, “nd”, and “th”, but I do not like it.
    By the way, during the 19th century, along came the 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics. Later on, scientists realized that there was one more fundamental that these, so it was necessary to call it the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics.
    In the 17th century, Isaac Newton had already expressed the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Laws of Motion. Then in the 20th century, Isaac Asimov expressed the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Laws of Robotics.

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