Saturday, March 26, 2011

Very small things considered

As I was researching tomorrow's Boston Globe column -- about the AP's switch from e-mail to email, hyphenation, and house style -- I ran across one of my favorite old pet peeves. (Dating from my days as an actual editor, when I allowed myself a larger collection of pet peeves.) There at AP's online "Ask the Editor" forum* was what I think of as some bad hyphenation advice:
Q. Which way should I hyphenate the following: "a three- to five-year repayment plan" or "a three-to-five-year replayment plan"? – from Eagan, Minn. on Mon, Mar 21, 2011
A. The first is correct.
The editor is thinking of the construction sometimes called suspensive hyphen, in which a phrase like "the two-part and three-part inventions" is reduced to "the two- and three-part inventions." Or "a four-night or five-night hotel stay" becomes "a four- or five-night hotel stay."

Those suspensive hyphens (with word spaces following them) work when the numbers are treated as units. You can have a two-part invention or a three-part invention, but not one in between. Same thing with the hotel stay (as billed by the hotel): There's no four-and-a-half night visit.

But when the numbers express a continuous, inclusive range, and they're joined by to rather than and or or, shouldn't the hyphenation show that continuous relationship? That is:

A trip of four to five days = a four-to-five-day trip (not necessarily in units of one day).

A repayment plan that lasts somewhere between three and five years (maybe four years, maybe 42 months) =  a three-to-five-year plan. 

Kids between 3 and 5 years old = 3-to-5-year-old kids. (So you can have a group of 3-to-5-year-olds, or a group of  3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.)

The Chicago Manual (15th ed.-- haven't seen the 16th) is with AP on this, making no distinction between "Chicago- or Milwaukee-bound passengers" and "five- to 10-minute intervals" (which I think should be "5-to-10-minute intervals," that is, intervals anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes.)  In Chicago's online Q&A, there's a hint that the editors have (sort of) noticed the difference:
Q. I’m seeing this particular use of hyphens: low-to-moderate income families. I don’t think it’s correct, but it’s becoming so common that I’m beginning to wonder if I missed something. 
A. Chicago style would render this phrase as “low- to moderate-income families,” but this level of hyphen usage is subtle enough that it’s not surprising that you don’t find it consistently applied. 
The question of continuous vs. discrete amounts in these expressions reminds me of the finer points of less vs. fewer; though fewer is usual for count nouns ("fewer than 10 entries),  less is fine when the focus is on the overall quantity ("tell us, in 250 words or less," or "it will take three hours or less to finish"). This is hard for some people to see (especially if they've been taught that the fewer/less distinction is a firm one), and I can see that my hyphenation distinction might be "subtle enough" -- as Chicago says -- to elude notice. As an ex-editor, I can even say that it probably isn't worth the time it would take to enforce it. But it's probably too late for me to un-notice it.


*This cite will disappear from the publicly viewable Q&A queue sometime soon.


5 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

Would the same thing apply to cases with "through" as well, as in "three-through-five-year"?

I think those suspensive hyphens look kind of messy. I guess I'm a little ignorant as to why "five year payment plan" needs to be "five-year payment plan" in the first place. I imagine that it's to specify that "five" isn't just a descriptive modifier. "Last year felt like a nine year, but this year have more of a five feel to it." Would anyone really assume something like that without the hyphen?

Terry said...

I don't see why the first hyphen is ever required: it either looks ugly, dangling there next to a space, or cramped, when four hyphens appear together, and where is the possible ambiguity in "five to 10-year-olds" compared to "five- to 10-year-olds" or "five-to-10-year-olds"?

Ø said...

I must say that the world would be a better place if we all expressed our usage peeves as temperately as Jan does.

Lee said...

Terry, your construction 'five to 10-year-olds,' wherever you put the hyphens is awkward, inconsistent and ugly. Why not use 'ten' instead of '10'?

Anonymous said...

I strongly disagree with Jan. Putting hyphens around "to" is short for "going from x to y", not "ranging from x to y". For instance, "nine-to-five job" would be correct, because the job is actually lasting from nine to five; "nine to five" is not simply some range in which one might find the job. "3-to-5-year repayment plan" is not correct, because the repayment plan is not actually lasting from three to five years; it is lasting from zero to x years, where x is between three and five. The only way that "3-to-5-year repayment plan" would be correct is if there is a need for five years of repayment, the first three years are taken case of, and we need a plan for years three to five. Then whatever solution were reached would indeed be a "3-to-5-year repayment plan".