Q: Woe Is I saved me from an “I”-versus-“me” embarrassment in a murder mystery I wrote. But I can’t find anything in Pat’s grammar book about “six foot ladder” and “five feet two” questions. I’m on the side of not using hyphens in these cases. Hope to gain a bit of insight from you.
A: This is an issue of style, not grammar. Although style guides agree on “six-foot ladder” (they recommend a hyphen), they’re at odds about “five feet two.”
We’ll get to our opinion in a moment, but we should mention that Pat does include a section on hyphens, “Betwixt and Between,” in Woe Is I (pages 175-79 in the third edition).
And she discusses whether to hyphenate a two-word description that modifies a noun (as in “six-foot ladder”). Here’s an excerpt:
“One of the hardest things to figure out with hyphens is how to use them in two-word descriptions. When two words are combined to describe a noun, sometimes you use a hyphen between them and sometimes you don’t.
“The first question to ask yourself is whether the description comes before or after the noun.
“• If it’s after the noun, don’t use a hyphen. Father is strong willed. My cousin is red haired. This chicken is well done. Ducks are water resistant.
“• If it’s before the noun, use a hyphen between the two words in the description. He’s a strong-willed father. I have a red-haired cousin. This is well-done chicken. Those are water-resistant ducks.”
Pat goes on to point out several exceptions, but we don’t need to get into them here. In answer to the ladder question, style manuals would recommend that you climb “a six-foot ladder,” but “the ladder is six feet” (or “six feet tall”).
Why “foot” in the first example and “feet” in the second?
We use singular nouns in nearly all adjectival phrases that precede nouns: “two-car garage,” “three-week vacation,” “four-bedroom house,” “five-month-old puppy,” “six-foot pipe,” and so on.
The only exception is with fractions, where the plural is often used in adjectival phrases that precede nouns: “a two-thirds turnout,” “a three-fifths margin,” etc.
Woe Is I doesn’t get into the hyphenation of adjectival phrases that describe dimensions (as in your “five feet two” question), but we’ve discussed this subject on our blog.
Again, if the phrase precedes a noun, it’s hyphenated, and a noun that’s part of it is singular: “a five-foot-two girl.”
Style guides differ, however, on how to deal with an adjectival phrase that follows the noun it modifies: Use hyphens, or not? Spell out numbers, or not? And so on.
The New York Times, for example, would say the girl is “5 feet 2 inches tall” or “5-foot-2.” The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, would recommend she’s “five feet two,” though it would accept what it considers the more colloquial “five foot two.”
The Times’s style on this seems reasonable and natural to us. There’s nothing wrong with saying “She’s five feet two inches,” but if you drop the word “inches,” it seems to us that “She’s five-foot-two” is more idiomatically correct (with or without the hyphens).
Now, the Chicago Manual does appear to be on your side about whether to use hyphens here. And with style guides at odds, the choice is yours. Feel free to say, “She’s five feet two.”
We can’t resist concluding with a few lines from one of the many hyphenless versions of “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”
Five foot two, eyes of blue,
But oh! what those five foot could do,
Has anybody seen my gal?
Turned up nose, turned down hose,
Never had no other beaus,
Has anybody seen my gal?
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