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I am writing about first-order and second-order quantities. Should I put one hyphen, as in

"first and second-order",

or two, as in

"first- and second-order".

Or should I do something else?

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Both your attempts are fine (especially if you're going to use the descriptor in the attributive position - eg first- and second-order differential equations. But I'd count your hyphens again. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 17 '13 at 15:02
Fowler recommends first and second-order quantities. – Cerberus Feb 17 '13 at 15:31
I'd dodge the issue and write first-order and second-order quantities. – Barrie England Feb 17 '13 at 15:38
I would use first- and second-order quantities. (I don't agree with Fowler on this point.) See this question: english.stackexchange.com/q/79159/18655 – JLG Feb 17 '13 at 15:44
What JLG said ... but only in the case of compound adjectives. If first and second are modifying order alone, no hyphens are required. – Robusto Feb 17 '13 at 15:58
up vote 1 down vote accepted

The Guardian and Observer Style Guide offers and explanation on when to use the hyphen and when not to. If I can simplify it here (I assume anyone can read it for themselves at the link), they say hyphens tend to add clutter to the text and they are unnecessary where the meaning would be clear either way.

(That being said, I have the habit of using them for compound adjectives like the ones you gave in your examples.)

They do give an example where (they say) hyphens should be used with short compound adjectives (e.g., "one-tonne"). It's not clear to me why, unless there is some possible ambiguity that can arise. The give an example of this sort of ambiguity in the following quoted headline:

Motorists told:

don't panic

buy petrol

which is also unfortunately formatted, so as to compound its lack of clarity.

To summarize with respect to your specific question, either way is acceptable, but according to the style guide cited above, no hyphens would be preferable.

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I'd argue that there is a potential for misconstruing here, so the cluttery hyphens could be the lesser of two evils: Looking more closely at the economic model, we see that it is necessary to investigate first and second order quantities. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 18 '13 at 23:10

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