The Grammar Factor – hyphens, plurals of distances and areas

Hyphens

Many people regard hyphens as unattractive punctuation marks. One communications manager I worked with called them ‘bird poop on a page’.

I think hyphens are useful to indicate that two or more words are acting as a single concept to describe the following noun (full-time worker).

Occasionally, a hyphen adds clarity. Compare:

  • Three monthly reports
  • Three-monthly reports (quarterly reports would avoid the hyphen)

This usage is fairly straightforward, but difficulties with hyphen usage arise because hyphens are also used to indicate words merging together. Some drop out over time (web site, web-site, website), but during this process, you see hyphenated words alongside a single word for a while.

Examples
Semicolon is now one word, even though some style guides still recommend a hyphen (semi-colon).

Email is usually one word, but e-mail still lurks.

Some attempts to merge words just don’t stick. The US uses percent, but Australia and New Zealand still write per cent.

I write more about hyphens in my grammar blog at https://www.onlinegrammar.com.au/category/blog/

If you want to learn more about punctuation, why not do my online program, An A to Z of Punctuation?

Readers’ questions

Plurals of distances and areas

Question: One thing confusing me at the moment is the treatment of areas and distances as plural or singular. For example:

In 2012, 10 ha of habitat was/were identified as good for animals.
In 2012, 2 km of road was/were built.

Answer: I am not surprised you’re confused because there does not appear to be universal agreement about this topic. Plural abbreviations of area, distance, money and time often take a singular verb, but it depends on whether you regard the units as collectives (groups) or separate items.

In the examples you gave, I would probably treat them as collectives and so use a singular verb.

In 2012, 10 ha of habitat was identified as good for animals. (one block)
In 2012, 2 km of road was built. (one stretch)

But if I didn’t want to treat them as collectives, I would use the plural. For example:

In 2012, 10 ha of habitat were identified as good for animals, 2 ha by the waterfall and 8 ha in the forest.
In 2012, 2 km of road were built, 1 km leading to the reserve and 1 km to the waterfall.

Full stops and quotation marks
A reader asked about full stops and quotation marks. I have covered this topic before, so you can read about it at http://bit.ly/Z9EMiZ

Resources

Free e-books

Write Like a Pro, by Dr Marcia Riley. Comprehensive and practical, this e-book is based on years of training experience.
http://bookboon.com/en/textbooks/career-job-search/write-like-a-pro

A Handbook for Writers in the U.S. Federal Government, by Richard Lauchman. Clear and easy to read, this e-book is suitable for anyone, not just government writers.
http://www.lauchmangroup.com/PDFfiles/PLHandbook.PDF

Legalese
If you enjoy clever legalese, then the Gettysburg address written in legalese is for you.
http://briefright.com/full-gettysburg-address-in-legalese/

How to write good
A reader sent me some ‘how to write good’ tips, which are on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/YeY8kt. The original tips were written by Frank L. Visco and published in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ Digest.

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ  the vernacular.
  5. Eschew  ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical  remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalise.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.’

Linguistic standards of presidential addresses
How reliable are Flesch-Kincaid readability tests? Based on readability tests, the linguistic standard of presidential addresses has declined.
http://bit.ly/YSM0WP

Blogs

My recent blogs cover:

I discovered a blog on writing by Neal Whitman: http://literalminded.wordpress.com

Pet peeve for the month

Trainings
Listening to a webinar, the word trainings was used in a slide and orally. Has that plural crept into the language? I’ve got used to learnings, but am not sure about trainings.

Quote of the month

‘One must regard the hyphen as a blemish to be avoided whenever possible.’
Winston Churchill

 
 

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