Punctuation Review #7: Family Relationships

By Maeve Maddox

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A random Web search suggests that people writing about families are not all on the same page when it comes to hyphenating terms for family relationships. For example:

A step-sister is the daughter of a step-parent to whom one is not biologically related.
I drew closer to my stepsister because I thought that we had something in common.

This is exactly what I loved about my grand Aunt, her passion for life and living.
My grandaunt’s husband was a businessman who ran a printing press.

Is “adoptive mother” the same as “foster-mother”?
Nakeita took Jamal back in and remains his dedicated foster mother.

My dad always speaks very highly of my great grand mother. 
The sister of my great grand-mother, named Anne, married her first cousin.
My great-grandmother was a quarter Cherokee.

The Chicago Manual of Style offers these rules for family terms that include the words foster, grand, great, half, and step:

The noun forms are open: foster mother, foster father, foster parents, foster home.
The adjective forms are hyphenated: foster-home background, foster-parent role.

Grand compounds are closed: grandmother, grandparent, granddaughter.

Great compounds are hyphenated: great-grandmother, great-great-grandfather.

Note: The OED shows great-aunt and grand-aunt. M-W has great-aunt and grandaunt. Fortunately, great-aunt and grandaunt mean the same thing: “the aunt of one’s parent.” American speakers can avoid the strange compound grandaunt by sticking to great-aunt when referring to that particular relationship.

When referring to a sibling, the compound is open: half sister, half brother.

Step compounds are closed, except with grand and great: stepdaughter, stepsibling, step-grandfather, step-grandparents.

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3 Responses to “Punctuation Review #7: Family Relationships”

  • Cindy

    How about in laws? That one gets me every time! Is it brother-in-law, for example?

  • Maeve


  • Mary Hodges

    Is “adoptive mother” the same as “foster-mother”?
    At least in British usage an adoptive parent is one who has legally adopted a child and has the same parental rights and responsibilities as a natural parent.
    A foster parent is someone who looks after a child either on a temporary or a permanent basis. As I understand it, an adopted child usually takes the name of the adoptive parents. A foster chid doesn’t.

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