January 26, 2015

Superlatives in Comparisons of Two

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A reader says: “I was taught that you use ‘er’ when referring to two items or people and ‘est’ when referring to three or more. Thus, I have two grandsons. The older one is Wyatt and the younger one is Casey. Yet all the time I see: ‘I have two grandsons. The oldest is Wyatt and the youngest is Casey.’” Is the reader right? Is "oldest" in this case an error? Nope. Here's the full story.

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Should You Hyphenate Compound Adverbs?
Posted by June on January 26, 2015
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You could read the hyphenation rules in every stylebook and you still won’t know whether to put a hyphen in this sentence.

Enjoy dessert guilt-free/guilt free.

The style guides talk a lot about compound modifiers in general and, in particular, compound adjectives before and after a noun.

That is, they say to hyphenate a compound adjective like “guilt-free” before a noun like “dessert”: a guilt-free dessert.  And they tell you that you also probably want to hyphenate it after the noun, too, if the intervening verb is a form of “be”: This dessert is guilt-free. But they completely ignore the question of what to do when you’re modifying not a noun but a verb: Enjoy dessert guilt-free. Here, the compound is modifying the verb “enjoy,” not the noun “dessert.” So it falls outside the style guilds’ express instructions for compound adjectives.

So a while back, I asked some experts their opinions for my punctuation book. And here are the cases they couldn’t agree on:

The combatants fought gladiator-style/gladiator style.

You can donate tax-free/tax free.

Enjoy treats guilt-free/guilt free.

They were talking all drunk-like/drunk like.

He only works part-time/part time.

We’re surviving day-to-day/day to day.

She always flies first-class/first class.

Drive extra-carefully/extra carefully.

He dances old-school/old school.

They sell it over-the-counter/over the counter.

He gets paid under-the-table/under the table.

Interestingly, they were unanimous in the view that They walked arm in arm should not be hyphenated.

June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more

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