October 21, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hyphenation & writing out numbers

Posted in hyphen, numbers and numerals at 9:14 am by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

Tip 1: Hyphenation

Last week, I wrote:

“I.e. stands for the Latin, id est, which means ‘that is,’ and it is used when you are going to re-state something in other words or provide more specificity, that is, list everything that you have been talking about.”

After last week’s WLUT, I was severely chastised by a friend, who wrote:

How the mighty have fallen! I would have never suspected you to fall victim to unnecessary hyphenation. Restate is a word similar in structure to review. Why hyphenate it? Now I have to re-consider everything I’ve learned from WLUT!

After wiping away a few tears and sighing, I thought to myself, ‘Oh good, this gives me an excuse to revisit one of my favorite topics, hyphenation.’

So here goes, let’s address my grouchy friend’s concern first. Why did I put a hyphen in re-state. My friend is right-it’s perfectly fine to write it without the hyphen as I wrote ‘revisit’ in the paragraph above. So why use the hyphen?

Well, the hyphen is a lovely symbol and serves many purposes. One of its purposes is to ensure that there is no misunderstanding when it comes to meaning or pronunciation. When I was writing, it occurred to me that some readers could confuse the word and think it has something to do with or is pronounced like ‘estate.’ In order to alleviate any possibility of confusion, I used the handy hyphen and wrote re-state to show that a long e is called for. If I hadn’t been writing about language usage, I probably would not have used the hyphen, but I found that, when writing this blog, it pays to be careful.

And what are the other rules about hyphens? There are many. I am only going to provide a few, here. I’ll focus on the usages that I see most often as errors in folks’ writing. After all, as the Oxford University Press Style manual asserts, “If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.”

[NOTE: I highly recommend Fowler’s Modern English Usage for a really enjoyable, albeit long, harangue on hyphens.]

1. This is the rule, we just discussed. Use a hyphen to avoid ambiguity in meaning or pronunciation.

Examples: recover or re-cover, resign or re-sign; the red-wine bottle or the red wine bottle

2. Use a hyphen in a compound word that is serving as an adjective, but not as a noun.

Examples: The decision-making algorithm is straightforward. We will address the complications associated with decision making.

End-of-life decision making is very difficult. Families often have to make many decisions at the end of life.

3. Use hyphens in fractions and in compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

Examples: one-third, three-quarters, fifty-seven

[NOTE: WORD suggested I correct ‘in fractions’ to read ‘infractions’ which is wrong but very cute.]

4. Use a hyphen with compound words when they appear before a noun, but don’t hyphenate when they appear after the noun.

Examples: The well-known author is going to speak at the seminar. I am looking forward to seeing this author speak; she is very well known for her wit.

5. Prefixes are a little tricky; it’s often difficult to know when to hyphenate and when the prefix and noun has evolved into one word. Dictionaries are useful for checking this.

Examples: Ex-president, semi-alert, ultraconservative, semiconscious

There are other rules which we will go over in the future, but this is a start.

Tip 2: Rules for writing numbers

A reader writes:

I love your weekly emails. I wonder if you would be willing to talk about the use of numbers in writing-when numbers need to be spelled out and when they can be numerals.

In particular, I helped with final edits on a journal article, and all of the numbers were changed to numerals-it looked to me almost as though the manuscript had been edited by text messaging. Here are two examples (as an aside, the article is partly a transcript of a discussion):

Well, once again, 1 good thing about exclusion criteria is that they let you know which population these results will pertain to …

This study is 1 of the largest prospective studies…

It seems to me in both of these examples, the word “one” should be used. Are there rules to back up my hunch?

The writer’s instincts were absolutely correct. In both examples, the word, ‘one’ should have been used. The changes that were made give me the creeps.

Here are some rules for writing out numbers [NOTE: I make exceptions for some of these rules when it comes to writing grant proposals or other documents with severe page limitations, but in all other writing, these rules hold strong.]

1. Always write out one-digit numbers; use numerals for 10 and above.

[NOTE: Some use the rule that one word numbers should be spelled out but two word numbers should be expressed in numerals, e.g., fifteen or 46. I don’t feel strongly about this-you should consult the style manual if you are submitting a paper to a particular journal.]

2. If you are writing a number over 1,000, always insert a comma where appropriate. this avoids the confusion of mixing up dates and numbers.

Example:1984 or 1,984

3. Spell out numbers that come at the beginning of a sentence.

Example: Forty-five people attended the reception.

4. When writing decimals, put a zero before the period unless the first digit of the decimal is a zero.

Examples: 0.74, 0.38, .06, .09

5. When two numbers are used together in a sentence, write out the smaller number to avoid confusion.

Example: 13 40 foot trees vs. thirteen 40 foot trees

6. When writing large numbers, it is often clearer if you write out the number or use a combination of numerals and words.

Example: 14 million, $32 million, Fifty million NOT 50,000,000

7. Spell out approximations.

Example: About two hundred years ago, researchers found…

8. When writing decades, DO NOT put an apostrophe before the s.

Example: the 1990s, the ’50s, the ’80s, the 1400s

I am going to stop here, because I see rule number 8 broken all of the time, and I want you to remember it. Apostrophes may go at the beginning of the decade when using an incomplete numeral, but NEVER before the s.



  1. Anonymous said,

    Can you please comment on when the sentence includes both a number under the 10 and one over 10.

    Ex: The proposed study is one that is going to approximate the 30 subjects…

  2. Jennifer said,


    After the utterly humiliating experience of being corrected by my CEO on the use of “advise and advice” I felt it was time to start taking action. I need a refresher crash course in grammar, spelling and syntax!

    I checked out your blog and was happy to see that, among many other tips, you had a post on the above mentioned hanus words.

    So, you have one new customer! I would like to subscribe to your weekly tips and anything else that you can send my way.


    Thanks so much, Jennifer

  3. Paul said,

    This is a good blog (I am glad you recognise Foweler and the OED as the primary authorities insofar as there can be any), but don’t imagine you can stop people mispronouncing a word like “restate” by inserting a hyphen. There is an epidemic (probably a timeless phenomenon in fact) of moving or distorting the stresses in words. In Europe, the word football (first syllable stressed, second pronounced fully because it’s a complete word) has become “footbl”, accompanied by “footblr”. Vowels are distorted as well. I notice that many US speakers love to elongate them and have an aversion to the simple o vowel found in words such as top and dog. We have something similar, but it can work either way: project (short o) becomes “pro-ject”, and “progress” (long o) becomes progg-ress. Another vice, imported by good but not perfect Asian and Arab English speakers, is the misuse of “the” with the cut vowel beofre a word beginning with a vowel. This obliges the speaker to add a glottal stop between the two words. Speakers who do this have never realised the value and function of the “thee” pronunciation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: