The Grammar Factor: hanging hyphens, compound adjectives, 20 years’ or years experience

By Mary Morel | August 2015

Hanging hyphens

A colleague consulted me this month about hanging hyphens (also called suspended or floating hyphens). For example: ‘short- and long-term plans’.

I don’t like hanging hyphens, so I would write ‘short and long-term plans’. I think omitting the hanging hyphen is cleaner, but since that is not a justification, I researched the topic.

The Australian government Style Manual says:

‘“Hanging” (or “floating”) hyphens are sometimes used to connect two words to a base word or number that they share:

pre- or post-1945     full- and part-time positions

While this form of hyphen can be useful in condensed prose, it is also potentially ambiguous. Fuller wording such as “full-time and part-time positions” would avoid this problem.’

On the other hand, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edn) says:

‘When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained, followed by a space.

Fifteen- and twenty-year mortgages…’

Having read both points of view, I would still rather omit the hanging hyphen. I cannot think of an example where omitting the hyphen would cause ambiguity. What do you think? Email

Readers’ questions


Question: Is it true that ‘cost-effective’ has a hyphen when used adjectivally before a noun (‘cost-effective solution’), but not otherwise (‘the solution was cost effective’)?

Answer: In theory, you’re right, but ‘cost-effective’ is such a commonly used phrase that it now takes a hyphen. com describes this rule:

‘Generally, hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective.

an off-campus apartment
state-of-the-art design

When a compound adjective follows a noun, a hyphen may or may not be necessary.

Example: The apartment is off campus.

However, some established compound adjectives are always hyphenated. Double-check with a dictionary or online.

Example: The design is state-of-the-art.’

Apostrophes in expressions of time

Question: Do you need an apostrophe in ’20 years’ experience’?

Answer: Grammar experts don’t agree about apostrophes in time.

The Australian government Style Manual says:

‘It was previously conventional to use an apostrophe in expressions of time involving a plural reference, such as:

six weeks’ time       three months’ wages

The apostrophe is now often left out… the sense of these phrases tends to be more descriptive than possessive.

When the time reference is in the singular, however, the apostrophe should be retained to help mark the noun as singular:

a day’s journey       the year’s cycle’

Write to Govern workshop in Brisbane

Join me in Brisbane where I will be conducting a workshop for the Governance Institute of Australia on Thursday 17 September 2015.

Pet peeves

Verbifying nouns
A reader commented on the ugliness of ‘podium’ being used as a verb.

The debate about verbifying nouns has been going on for months in Column 8 (Sydney Morning Herald).

One person asked if the use of ‘ideate’ in a state railway magazine was the worst verbifying of a noun ever (‘a brisk walk helps you to think and ideate’). Or, he added, ‘is my use of “verbifying” even worse?’
Someone responded that it’s time we got over the verbifying thing, stating: ‘The Oxford Dictionary informs me that in 1610 none other than John Donne used the verb ‘ideate’ ( A State which Plato Ideated.).’
What do you think about verbifying?

A few readers complained about ‘underway’ being used as one word in my previous newsletter. As one reader said, we don’t write ‘inprogress’.

Reader’s comment about ‘myself’

I covered when to use ‘me’ and ‘myself’ last month and a reader suggested that one reason people use ‘myself’ instead of ‘me’ is that ‘me’ is too short.

He said Guy Deutscher (The Unfolding of Language) says that usage tends to lengthen short words and phrases, citing the French ‘aujourd’hui’. This word started off as Latin ‘hodie’, which became ‘hui’, then ‘au jour de’ because ‘hui’ was too short.

Interesting stuff about writing

Hilarious examples of typos
This article looks at some typos that went viral. For instance, McDonald’s had a sign saying ‘Over 10 billion severed’, and another sign said: ‘Shoplifters will be prostituted’.

Test your style knowledge
The latest edition of the The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is now available and this quiz is based on it. Remember, the quiz has a US bent! We do some things differently in Australia and NZ.

Punctuation won the day
A parking ticket fine ended up in court in the US and the case was based on poor punctuation. Punctuation won.

Quote of the month

‘Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.’
US author Louis L’Amour


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