hyphens vs. en dashes
June 20, 2013 7:13 AM   Subscribe

How would you use hyphens and en dashes in the following phrase: "one to three year jail sentence"?

My gut tells me it's "one–to–three-year jail sentence" (en dash, en dash, hyphen) because it's a range and then a compound adjective before the noun. What's your opinion? And, do you have a cite for your opinion, so I can bookmark for similar grammar questions that might come up? Thanks!
posted by Ollie to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: One- to three-year sentence. One and three are modifying year. To is not.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:15 AM on June 20, 2013 [19 favorites]

Best answer: What TBF says.
posted by alms at 7:23 AM on June 20, 2013

Best answer: Take a look at the third question down for the Chicago Manual of Style's input on this (everyone else is right).
posted by booknerd at 7:31 AM on June 20, 2013

Response by poster: So, I understand the first three answers IF the phrase were: "One-, two-, and three-year jail sentences." But it's the fact that it's a range that's throwing me, as one uses en dashes for ranges. (January–June 2013, 10–20 people, etc.)

Is the range just not a factor here? Why not? Is it the "to" that makes it unnecessary? Like "one–three-year jail sentence" is correct but "one–to–three-year" isn't?
posted by Ollie at 7:38 AM on June 20, 2013

Best answer: The regular hyphen connects the number to the word "year." The en dash would be used in place of the word "to" in the range. Typically one would append the hyphen after both words defining the range as These Birds of a Feather points out.

To use an en dash would look strange as it would yield

"One- – three-year jail sentence."
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 7:46 AM on June 20, 2013

The "to" takes the place of the dashes, using both would be redundant (or the dashes take the place of the "to", however you want to look at it). It's also a lot of punctuation in a small amount of space that I don't think actually helps clear up any ambiguities and looks awkward (combing hyphens and dashes in one long connected phrase just seems like a really bad idea).

My style guide does not specifically mention all this but it might be worth adding.
posted by bfootdav at 7:47 AM on June 20, 2013

To make sense of it, think about the range as being phrased in this more complete but clumsy way: "one-year to (or —) three-year sentence." Looks ugly as sin but shows why you would want the en-dashes as described above.
posted by Pomo at 7:50 AM on June 20, 2013

Best answer: You only use an en-dash to stand in for the spelled-out concept "to" when you're dealing with pure numerical representations. 1–3 year jail sentence. If you spell out the numbers, you need to spell out the concept "to" and not express it symbolically with an en-dash. Consider these examples:

1–3 apples
one to three apples
*one–three apples

In your example, the hyphen is not symbolizing the concept "to"--which is right there, spelled out, "to." Instead, it's joining the compound modifier "three-year" and "one-[implicit year]", a function that is symbolized by a hyphen and not an en-dash except in certain exceptional circumstances.
posted by drlith at 8:00 AM on June 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

My experience has always been that it's one-to-three-year.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:39 AM on June 20, 2013

Best answer: If this helps to clarify:

"One-year sentence" + "Three-year sentence" = "One- to three-year sentence."
posted by ErikaB at 8:40 AM on June 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

All hyphens. It's a straightforward phrasal adjective.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:27 AM on June 20, 2013

posted by Mister Bijou at 9:59 AM on June 20, 2013

With numbers, I'd write 1–3 year sentence or 1 to 3 year sentence.

With words, One- to three-year sentence. My purely made-up reason is that the endpoints of the range when spelled out are one-year and three-year, so the one and three are both equally strongly associated with year, despite three being closer to year in the sentence.
posted by zippy at 10:06 AM on June 20, 2013

Best answer: Book editor checking in. One- to three-year is correct. No en-dash in this case; there would be an en-dash only if you were using numerals alone to indicate the range.
posted by scody at 10:24 AM on June 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I agree that one- to three-year is correct, according to the stylebooks. It's one of those prescriptivist things that I think can be argued against, though. "One to three", in modern usage, could be a singular noun, to my thinking. (In which case, I would use dashes between all of the words.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:07 AM on June 20, 2013

Best answer: Professional copyeditor here. It is as These Birds of a Feather, scody, and other people who know what they are talking about say: one- to three-year sentence, with hyphens. This is not a matter of opinion.

> It's one of those prescriptivist things that I think can be argued against, though.

No, because this is exactly where prescriptivism is the whole story. This is not a matter of language, where any native speaker's usage is as correct as any other's (though there may be social preferences); this is a matter of correct printed style (the mention of en-dashes makes it clear that's what we're talking about), and the only answer to that is "what the style manual says."
posted by languagehat at 11:38 AM on June 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Op, the way to think of it is that your phrase is a shortening of "one-year to three-year jail sentence". Hence you use hyphens and say "one- to three-year jail sentence".

You would use an en-dash to say "a jail sentence of 1–3 years" because that describes a range. But that's a different sentence, so to speak.
posted by alms at 11:56 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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