Tag Archive - grammar

Hyphenation–Not-So-Easy-to-Understand Rules

I think the most errors I see when editing manuscripts have to do with hyphenation. In an earlier post, I gave a link to the latest CMOS Hyphenation Chart, and you can download it again here. I refer to it a lot since there are so many diverse rules! Many of the rules deal with modifying a noun (putting an adjective or compound adjective before the noun), as shown in some examples below.

Here are some basic and common usages of hyphenated style:

  • My sixteen-year-old is taking ballet classes from a seventy-year-old woman.
  • He’s wearing a dark-green coat and a blue-gray sweater. [But you would say, “His coat is dark green.”]
  • It’s a black-and-white photo. [But you would say, “The truth is black and white.”]
  • I’m taking a fiction-writing workshop.
  • This is cutting-edge technology. [But you would say, “This tech is cutting edge.”]
  • I’m working a twelve-hour-a-day schedule. [But you would say, “I’m working a twelve-hour day.”]
  • This book is a nineteenth-century romance with twenty-first-century dialog.

A lot of words we tend to hyphenate should be one closed-up word, so check both the handy hyphenation chart and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (which is the secondary authority below CMOS).

What Time Is It?

I see a lot of confusion about when to spell out the time of day and when to show it as numerals. The rules are pretty simple. You want to spell out times of day if they are in even, half, or quarter hours: “She left at seven o’clock and returned at seven fifteen.” If you want to stipulate a time of day that doesn’t follow this rule, use the numerals: “He looked at the clock and it read 6:18.”

Now, if you really want to emphasize an exact time, you can use numerals even with times that normally would be spelled out: “The store opens at exactly 8:30.”

As far as dates go, just use the numeral and don’t make it an ordinal: “He’s coming on December 5” (not December 5th). Or spell out “fifth.” If you are not mentioning the month with the day, you spell out the day: “She should be here on the sixteenth.”

Are You Likely or Apt to Read This?

Here are four words that are often confused: apt, likely, prone, liable. Their differences are a bit subtle, but they do mean different things, so you might want to write these in your notebook for future reference.

Apt: Means one is habitually inclined: A frog is apt to gobble up a fly if it gets too close.

Likely: Means one is inclined or tending toward something: She is likely to win (implying the odds are with her).

Prone: Means one is inclined but usually implies undesirable results:  He’s prone to tripping.

Liable: Means one is likely to suffer (always undesirable consequences): She’s liable to have accidents (implies probability).

These words have no bearing on other meaning of these words, such as a likely story, he’s lying prone, she’s an apt pupil, not liable for the accident (legally responsible). Being a copyeditor, I’m apt to look for misuse of these words! And I’m likely to find some!

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