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Heightened tension

Q: I’m a reporter at a newspaper where an argument recently erupted between a copy editor and an assignment editor over how a person’s height should be designated. Is someone “5-foot-6” or “5-feet-6”? I would argue that it’s “5-feet-6” on the analogy that someone doesn’t weigh “150 pound.” Thanks for your help.

A: There’s no absolute right-vs.-wrong way to state dimensions in numbers (spell them out or not? use hyphens or not? pluralize the noun or not?). It’s a style issue, and one that’s likely to vary from publisher to publisher.

The New York Times’s style, for example, is “5 feet 6 inches tall” or “5-foot-6.” The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, recommends “five feet nine,” though it accepts “more colloquially, five foot nine.”

Why does the Times (and many other publications) prefer the singular “foot” instead of the plural “feet” in a statement like “She’s 5-foot-6”? The Times stylebook doesn’t offer an explanation, but here’s my take on this.

When you say, “She’s 5-foot-6,” it’s really a clipped way of saying, more or less, “She’s a 5-foot-6 woman.” So “5-foot-6” here is actually an adjectival phrase (a group of words acting like an adjective).

Just think of the adjectival phrases “five-card” and “seven-card” in the question “Do you want to play five-card or seven-card stud?” You’d answer, “Five-card” or “Seven-card,” not “cards.”

We use singular nouns in nearly all adjectival phrases that indicate durations or amounts: “two-car garage,” “three-week vacation,” “four-bedroom house,” “five-month-old puppy,” “three-year lease,” and so on.

The only exception is with fractions, where the plural is often used in adjectival phrases: “a two-thirds turnout,” “a three-fifths margin,” etc.

Although there’s no hard-and-fast rule about the clipped forms, I think most of us commonly use singular nouns: “What size apartment are you looking for? A two-bedroom or a three bedroom?”

But back to your question about height. The Times style on this seems reasonable and natural to me. There’s nothing wrong with saying “She’s 5 feet 6 inches,” but if you drop the word “inches,” it sounds more idiomatically correct to my ear to say “She’s 5-foot-6.”

Now, the Chicago Manual does appear to be on your side. But this is largely irrelevant in a newsroom, since newspapers don’t follow Chicago style.

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