To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate: That is the Question

Another confusing proofreading issue is hyphenated words. This is particularly true when the words are sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not depending on how the word is used. There are, of course, rules regarding hyphenation.
  • Always hyphenate ex, elect, and designate when attaching them to titles. For example “Ex-President Carter.”
  • You can also use “then” before a title to indicate that the person was acting in that capacity at the time you are describing. Used in this way, it will be hyphenated when it would be confusing otherwise.
    • Then Governor Mecham was impeached in Arizona. This could be read to mean that Governor Mecham’s impeachment happened next.
    • Then-Governor Mecham was impeached in Arizona. This would be read to mean that Governor Mecham was acting governor at the time he was impeached.
  • Family titles starting with grand (such as grandmother) are written without a hyphen; however, family titles starting with great (like great-grandmother) are written WITH a hyphen for each great (for instance her great-great-grandmother).
  • When used as nouns, terms such as African Americans or French Canadians are not hyphenated. When they are used as adjectives such as African-American politicians or French-Canadian residents, they would be hyphenated.
  • Fractions written out would be hyphenated, such as one-third and three-fifths.
  • Compound numbers such as thirty-five and six hundred eighty-four should be hyphenated.
  • An age that modifies a noun is hyphenated.
    • My 40-year-old neighbor has three barking dogs.
  • An age that is an adjective phrase that comes after the noun is not hyphenated
    • My granddaughter will be 13 years old soon.
    • The twins are two years old.

The biggest hyphenation issue that I see consistently is third party. Hyphenating third party depends on how it is used. 

  •  When third party is used as a modifier, it should be hyphenated.
    • The bill for the third-party vendor was past due.
  • It would NOT be hyphenated when not used as a modifier.
    • The bill was sent to the third party for payment directly to the vendor.

For an easy test to see if the phrase is a modifier that requires a hyphen, try each word alone with the noun. If it doesn’t make sense, you need a hyphen. If it DOES make sense, then you do not use a hyphen:

  • In the example above, third vendor does not make sense so third-party vendor should be hyphenated.
  • She prefers high-quality clothing. High clothing does not make sense so high-quality should be hyphenated.

Grammar Giggles – Would You Like Hors D’oeuvres With That?

On the executive floor of a hotel I recently stayed in, this sign was on the lounge door. I had to look a couple of times because while it didn’t look right, I (and obviously others) have a difficult time spelling the word correctly. A quick Google search confirmed that it was, indeed, incorrectly spelled.

The Cost of NOT Proofreading

I read an article recently about a typo that cost the New York City transit system $250,000 to replace maps that had a typo in the minimum cost of the pay-per-ride card. Paying attention and proofreading are valuable skills in the marketplace. I wondered what other errors might have cost businesses and government agencies money and embarrassment that could have easily been prevented. Here are just a few examples that I found in my research:

  • Proofreading errors have been made throughout history. The 1632 edition of the King James Bible left a word out that completely changed the meaning of the seventh commandment when that edition read “Thou shalt commit adultery.” The printer was fined for the mistake and all copies of the Bible with the error had to be destroyed.
  • Tattoo artists are sometimes sued for negligence in misspellings that are permanently inscribed in flesh. This happens much more frequently than one would think.
  • The University of Wisconsin gave its 1988 graduates diplomas that said “University of Wisconson.”
  • Air Canada used luggage stickers reading “This Baggage Has Been X-Rated at Point of Origin.”
  • Australian Publishing Company Penguin Group had to reprint a cookbook at a cost of $18,500 because a recipe for pasta called for “salt and freshly ground black people.”
  • A trader on the Toyko stock exchange in 2005 was too quick to place his order and traded 610,000 shares at 1 yen each instead of 1 share at 610,000 yen. That mistake cost his firm $18.7 million.
  • In 2010, a Chilean man authorized the production of 1.5 million 50-peso coins that misspelled the country’s name as “C-H-I-I-E.” The managing director of the Chilean mint was fired once the mistake was discovered. All 1.5 million of those coins remain in circulation to this day.
  • In June 2010, the gift shop at Australia’s Parliament House unpacked a delivery of mugs that had been ordered to celebrate Barack Obama’s visit to Australia. The mugs, however, welcomed “Barrack Obama” in large letters. They lost approximately $2,000 in expected revenue.
  • A new water tower in the city of Stoughton, Wisconsin, was painted with the word “Stoughon.” The contractor fixed his error free of charge.
  • A clerical error in 2006 may have cost an Italian airline $7.72 million USD. They advertised a flight from Toronto to Cyprus for $39 instead of $3,900. By the time they discovered the error, 2,000 tickets had been sold and the airline had to honor the price.
Everyone is busy, but slowing down and taking the time to make sure what you are doing is correct is obviously well worth it. 

Fewer People are Less Concerned About The Difference Between "Less" and "Fewer"

There seems to be confusion about when to use the word less and when to use the word fewer. Fewer should be used when you are talking about things that can be counted. Grammar Girl calls them “count nouns.”

  • He took three pencils and left fewer than four on her desk. 

Less is used when you are talking about things that cannot necessarily be individually counted. Grammar Girl calls those “mass nouns.”

  • If he used less sarcasm, he might have more friends.

Of course, we are talking about the English language, so there are exceptions. The word less is typically used for measurements of time, money, and distance.

  • He had less than four hours of work left before his vacation.
An interesting fact is that the signs in the grocery store for “10 items or less” is actually grammatically incorrect because you can count the items you put on the grocery belt (count nouns). To be grammatically correct, it should be “10 items or fewer.” That is one way to remember the difference (if remembering horrible mistakes helps you remember how it really should be). There is a belief, however, that in less formal writing, “10 items or less” sounds less stuffy, so is appropriate to use. Working for lawyers, however, has trained me that no writing is less formal, so I’m sticking with the “rule” and believing that all grocery stores are wrong! 

Commas–More is Not Better

Commas are a mark of punctuation that seems to confuse a lot of people. Here are some common comma issues:
  • Commas may be needed to set off a nonessential description. For instance, when I refer to “my grandson Jasper,” there is no comma between “grandson” and “Jasper” because if I just said “my grandson,” you wouldn’t know which of my three grandsons I was talking about. If I only had one grandson, I could set it off with commas because I could take that name out of the sentence and it wouldn’t change the meaning. If I was saying something about “President of the United States, Barack Obama,” the comma is OK because if you deleted his proper name, you would still know who I was talking about. If it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence to take it out and the sentence still makes sense, use commas. If you need that language for the sentence to make sense, take the comma(s) out.
  • With dates, the proper rule is to set off the year in complete dates with commas. “He started on February 23, 2011, in his new position.”
  • Just because serial commas are correct does not mean that every time the word “and” appears, it should have a comma in front of it.  
  • A comma’s intent is not to be used each time you would take a breath or pause in reading the writing. While that may be a good guide, it is not a good rule.
  • Some words are always preceded and followed by commas: 
    • i.e. (that is)
    • e.g. (for example)
    • etc.
    • et al. (when it follows two or more names)
Commas have their place, just not necessarily as many places as people seem to want to put them.