Punctuation Quiz #12: Suspensive Hyphenation

By Mark Nichol

Each of the following sentences demonstrates incorrect style for suspensive hyphenation; revise the style of the number as necessary.

1. For an eighteen or nineteen-year-old, it can just seem like old guys blowing hot air.

2. Cinder cones are formed by short eruptions of pea-to-walnut-sized lava rocks injected with gas and air.

3. The medication alleviates flu or cold-related symptoms.

4. The best-seller follows the action and comedy-packed story of a fairy turned human boy.

5. Here’s what you need to pack up for a three or four day holiday weekend.

Answers and Explanations

When the last word in each of two or more hyphenated phrasal adjectives is the same, all instances of that word but the last may be omitted when the word can be clearly understood to apply to all the phrasal adjectives, but retain the hyphen after the words preceding the elision, followed by a letter space. (For example, “The left- and right-hand turns have different street names.”)

1.
Original: For an eighteen or nineteen-year-old, it can just seem like old guys blowing hot air.
Correct : For an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old, it can just seem like old guys blowing hot air.

Eighteen, a truncated form of eighteen-year-old, requires a suspensive hyphen.

2.
Original: Cinder cones are formed by short eruptions of pea-to-walnut-sized lava rocks injected with gas and air.
Correct : Cinder cones are formed by short eruptions of pea- to walnut-sized lava rocks injected with gas and air.

The full form of the construction is “pea-sized to walnut-sized lava rocks,” so pea, though sized is correctly omitted, should not be hyphenated to to, and to should not be hyphenated to walnut.

3.
Original: The medication alleviates flu or cold-related symptoms.
Correct : The medication alleviates flu- or cold-related symptoms.

The medication alleviates flu-related symptoms, not flu, so flu needs a suspensive hyphen.

4.
Original: The best-seller follows the action and comedy-packed story of a fairy turned human boy.
Correct : The best-seller follows the action- and comedy-packed story of a fairy turned human boy.

The story is packed with action and packed with comedy, so action requires a suspensive hyphen.

5.
Original: Here’s what you need to pack up for a three or four day holiday weekend.
Correct : Here’s what you need to pack up for a three- or four-day holiday weekend.

The reference is to a holiday weekend lasting three or four days, so three and four require hyphens connecting them, respectively, to an implied and an actual instance of day.

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4 Responses to “Punctuation Quiz #12: Suspensive Hyphenation”

  • Andy Knoedler

    In #4, “best-seller” should be closed up to read “bestseller.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Andy:
    Best-seller is one of those words whose treatment varies among various dictionaries. I go by Merriam-Webster’s.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, that’s right. Best seller, best-seller, and bestseller teeter on the edge, and any one of them is acceptable. Likewise for the pairs judgement & judgment, and acknowledgment & acknowledgement. There is no need to get bent out of shape about any one of them.
    On the other hand, “reenter” is much better than “re-enter”, and antimissile and anticommunist are much better than anything with a hyphen in it. I even go for antifascist, antinazi, and antidictatorship.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I think that “suspended hyphenation” is an unnecessary issue, practically a dead one. I very rarely see it in North American English, and just occasionally in British English. There is always a way around it by rephrasing the sentence**, and I like the construction (above) “pea-to-walnut-sized lava rocks” .
    **”Ugh”, some people say – the ones who have enough trouble with writing a sentence once, much less rephrasing one.
    This sentence, “The best-seller follows the action- and comedy-packed story of a fairy turned human boy.”, needs to be rephrased because it is awkward and ugly to begin with. Try rewriting it with a subordinate clause!

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