I'm wondering if lists comprised of similar or related words/phrases can be shortened by omitting the root/suffix/word that they have in common except in the last item in the list.


  1. "We were best-friends through elementary, middle, and high school."
  2. "I received checks in amounts of five-, six-, and seven-thousand dollars."
  3. "He works with para and quadriplegic patients."

I feel if any of the examples is permissible, it would be example 1.

In example 2, although riding the line of ambiguity as to the amount on the checks (it could be "$5, $6, and $7,000" OR "$5,000, $6,000, and $7,000") it seems to be a reasonable sentence that would be easy to understand in context. However, I am unsure my use of hyphens would be proper in this sentence.

In example 3, the prefix "para" is isolated from "paraplegic"

I don't think the sentence in example 3 is anywhere close to proper but I read it in a document that was sent to me for work and it prompted me to ask questions concerning similar language situations. Thanks for any replies!


  • I suggest changing the title, it is a bit confusing. Jul 23 '14 at 18:09
  • @BakedPotato I agree. I'm not sure how to distill the essence of the question or if there is a term of which I am unaware for what I have described. I see the confusion in presenting an example that isn't necessarily indicative of the question, do you have a suggestion for clarifying the intent of my title?
    – Ian
    Jul 23 '14 at 18:29
  • @tchrist the linked thread is quite similar and possibly answers all my questions if, in my examples, all truncated words require a hyphen – and I'm not entirely sure that they don't.
    – Ian
    Jul 23 '14 at 18:37
  • Since ‘seven thousand’ is not usually hyphenated, there is no reason for the hyphens in sentence 2. By default, I would understand “amounts of five, six, and seven thousand dollars” to mean amounts of $5,000, $6,000, and $7,000, since this way of shortening numbers is so exceedingly common in both spoken and written language. If I really wanted to describe amounts of $5, $6, and $7,000, I would say, “amounts of five dollars, six dollars, and seven thousand dollars”. Jul 23 '14 at 18:45
  • 1
    Paraplegic and quadriplegic are single words that share a root but have different prefixes. When leaving off one part of a single word (or a compound word written as one word without a hyphen), you do have to add a hyphen to indicate that you’re only writing out part of the word: “para- and quadriplegic patients”. Jul 23 '14 at 18:47

Here's a quick summary of the responses already offered in several excellent comments to this question.

"We were best-friends through elementary, middle, and high school."

This sentence is unambiguous and almost flawlessly punctuated as written. The only change I'd make is to drop the hyphen from "best-friends" and treat best and friends as separate words:

"We were best friends through elementary, middle, and high school."

"I received checks in amounts of five-, six-, and seven-thousand dollars."

As Janus Bahs Jacquet observes, there is ordinarily no hyphen in the words "five thousand dollars," "six thousand dollars," and "seven thousand dollars." Adding a hyphen to each number may obviate any lurking ambiguity as to whether the first two terms refer to $5 and $6 or to $5,000 and $6,000, but it does so at the cost of being unduly distracting, as (some) readers muse to themselves, "I see why you did that—but why didn't you just..." Surely a better way to clarify the intended meaning in this instance is to render the amounts as $ + numerals:

"I received checks in amounts of $5,000, $6,000, and $7,000."

"He works with para and quadriplegic patients."

Here, readers need some sort of signal that para isn't a stand-alone word. (None of of these meanings make sense here, but as Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary points out, para as a freestanding word can refer to "any of several monetary units of the Turkish Empire," to "a former Yugoslav monetary unit equal to 1/100 dinar," or to a commonly used abbreviation for paragraph.) To do the job, you can either add a hyphen after para:

"He works with para- and quadriplegic patients."

or spell out paraplegic:

"He works with paraplegic and quadriplegic patients."

Either method works fine, and I can't imagine any reader who recognizes the terms paraplegic and quadriplegic being slowed down significantly by either presentation.


The difference is that sentences one and three are not ambiguous, while two is ambiguous. In sentence three, the reader can infer that para is referring to paraplegics, because of the word "quadriplegic."

English grammar frowns on the use of ambiguous sentences as we all taught to use complete sentences. Thus repeating words over and over again. This can become very redundant and making sentences excessively long.

"We were best-friends through elementary school, middle school, and high school."

  • English grammar most certainly does not "frown on the use of ambiguous sentences". I would go so far as to say that most utterances are in principle ambiguous, in that one could contrive multiple contexts where different meanings were intended. In the real world, utterances are made in specific contexts, which almost always resolve any potential ambiguity so clearly we don't even notice most alternative interpretations. Jul 23 '14 at 20:45
  • Well my English grammar teachers frowned on the use of ambiguous sentences when writing. You are correct that real-world speech can be very ambiguous. Although I thought this question was in reference to writing complete sentences and not speech. Jul 24 '14 at 22:36

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