There it is again: “The girl was ten-years-old.”

I want to scream and stomp and tear my hair. All right, I’m overreacting, and perhaps even exaggerating my reaction, but only perhaps. Why can’t people learn where to use – or not use – a hyphen?

The girl, was, in fact, ten years old. No hyphens. If you want to say “ten-year-old girl”, then use the hyphens. Here is my own way of deciding whether a phrase needs to be hyphenated. Use it if you find it useful.

1) Hyphens almost never go in descriptive phrases following any form of the verb “to be” – is, was, will be, used to be, whatever. The girl who is ten years old is an example.

2) Hyphens are used in adjectival phrases before the noun they describe if you cannot apply each adjective in the phrase separately to the noun.

For example,“ten-year-old girl” is hyphenated because the girl is not ten, and year, and old. “Red velvet slippers” doesn’t have to be hyphenated because the slippers can be red slippers, and velvet slippers. Each adjective makes sense applied individually.

“Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” has to be hyphenated because the reindeer is not red and nosed. (Of course, if you have a red reindeer named Rudolph, feel free to leave out the hyphen, provided he has a nose.)

The latest occurrence of missing hyphens – the one that really made me think about writing this post – is this one, from a flyer from our local five-and-dime.

feed me babies

When I saw this, the first thing I thought was: what will you feed it when you run out of babies?

A hyphen between “feed” and “me” would have transformed the phrase from a command regarding dietary habits to a description of the sort of doll being advertised. Even quotation marks around “feed me” would have done the trick. As it stands, I really wouldn’t recommend this toy for a household with small children, or even small pets. What if you came downstairs one morning to find the birdcage door ajar and Mr Feed Me Babies burping budgie feathers? Shades of Chucky!

Of course, if the designers of the flyer had come up to my own rather persnickety standards, I wouldn’t have had the belly laugh I got from this ad. That’s not the reaction they wanted from me, of course, and they could have avoided it easily. All they had to do was learn where to use a hyphen.

This entry was posted in Going on About Words, Who are these people? and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Hyphen-ventilation

  1. Good post! There are so many grammar problems in the world today, it really makes me wonder if the education curriculum even covers grammar, anymore! 🙂

  2. ecreith says:

    I doubt if it does. Certainly I’ve heard students say “I seen” and “I been” in class and the teacher has not corrected them.

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