To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

I’m working on proofing a document for a freelance gig, and came across a couple *fun* grammar/punctuation trickies today.

1. “Two and a half miles.” To hyphenate or not to hyphenate? Compound adjectives can be tricky; usually I go by the feel of the sentence: the well-lit balcony. The densely-populated city. Post-secondary education.

A site called Grammar Monster helped me out on this one, calling out the numbers as compound adjectives that need to be hyphenated. They call out an interesting example:

  • two-and-a-half million
  • two-and-a-half-million miles

In the first example, million is a noun; in the second example, it’s part of the number and thus part of the compound adjective. My go-to grammar site Grammarly had some mixed messages, concluding that it kind of depends on what manual you’re using and how the phrase is used. Today, I chose the hyphens: “two-and-a-half miles.” The tricky thing is to get hyper-hyphen syndrome, and put them between every two-word combination (see what I did there?), thereby compromising the integrity of your compound nouns, some of which have hyphens (shout out to the mother-in-law!) and some don’t (bottle shock, bus stop). The rule of thumb: check if the set of words is describing something. If it’s not, it’s not an adjective. It still might get hyphens if it’s a compound noun (mother-in-law), but that applies to a specific set of vocabulary which we don’t have time for right now.

Note: searching Two and a Half on its own doesn’t get you very far.


Thanks, Google, for the math lesson and pop culture reference.

2. North, south, east, west: when to capitalize these guys?
My sticky sentence read “two-and-a-half miles North of Napa” after I hyphenated the number, and as I stared at those two N’s, I realized that this was one of those High School English things that never stuck (further/farther and bring/take still sends me to Google).

So I consulted a couple sites, which provided a great refresher:

  • Capitalize when they’re used as proper nouns: I’m from the North, living on the West Coast.
  • Lowercase when they’re adjectives: the best margaritas are found in the southeast corner of the plaza. We’re heading east of the winery for a bite to eat. The vineyard is two-and-a-half miles north of Napa.

And ta da, I lowercased that guy. Then proceeded to write this blog post because I thought it was interesting. Confessions of a grammar nerd, everyone. 🙂

Hope y’all* are having a great day!


*Next grammar post: why we should all say y’all way more, and why I spelled it wrong for twenty-four years.

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