I'm currently reading "Assuming a mantle of power" from International New York Times (May 14, 2015), and the article is about a soft power look that female leaders are donning, with pencil skirts and three-quarter-sleeved jackets being the best examples of the look.

Then, I came across the following phrase:

Put simply: written one pencil-skirt, three-quarter-sleeved jacket suit critique, written ’em all.

  1. Is "one" the determiner? And are "pencil-skirt" and "three-quarter-sleeved" adjectives? Is "critique" being a noun that "one" modifies? Then what is "jacket suit"?

I guess what I'm really asking is how come there are no hyphens between "sleeved" and "jacket;" and "jacket" and suit"? As far as I know to make a compound adjective that modifies a noun before it must be hyphened.

Not comprehending these mechanics here, I'm totally confused what the author is trying to convey here.

Can somebody explain what the meaning of the phrase and all the hyphens here? Or if they are used wrong, maybe suggest the right way to use them?

  • 3
    (1) Yes, and yes. The Eleven-year-old Boy rule applies. Jacket suit is a compound noun (like frock coat) and doesn't need a hyphen in writing. May 28, 2015 at 15:24
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    @JohnLawler Then does the compound noun "jacket suit" modify critique? Like ice cream shop? May 28, 2015 at 15:27
  • Yup. You got it. May 28, 2015 at 15:29
  • @JohnLawler what I'm still confused about is "pencil-" and "three-quarter-sleeved" is a style of an item of clothing and "skirt" and "jacket" being the items. How come we have one "style-item" and "style item (no hyphen)?" Shouldn't it be one pencil-skirt, three-quarter-sleeved-jacket suit critique? Wouldn't it be closer to what the author intended...? Wait, but I don't really get what the author is trying to say, which is causing much trouble with me. May 28, 2015 at 15:32
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    Hyphens are writing, not speech. There are no hyphens in speech; instead, there is intonation and stress and rhythm, which aren't represented in writing. There is no good rule for hyphenation (just as there is none for other silent punctuation, like apostrophe's); people do whatever they can think of to represent the sounds, but hyphenation is at best 19th-century technology and frequently fails. And there is no regularity at all in people's usages. May 28, 2015 at 15:38

2 Answers 2


NR - it would be helpful if you could post the link to the article you are referring to. I am looking at the US version of the article, published May 13 entitled "Nicole Sturgeon, Cloaked in a New Mantle of Power".

In the retail and style industries, the term 'pencil skirt' is generally never hyphenated. However, the initial outfit being described in this article is, in fact, a dress. This is why 'pencil-skirt' is hyphenated the first time it is used in the article; the author is describing a pencil-skirt dress.

As Fashion Director of the New York Times, and I might add a phenomenal writer, I'm going to guess that when Vanessa Friedman originally penned her article, she punctuated her (arguably nasty) zinger correctly:

Put simply: written one pencil skirt, three-quarter-sleeved jacket suit critique, written 'em all.

It is possible that the style editor of the International NYT, or some other editor, or perhaps Friedman herself, inserted the unnecessary hyphen. The editor may have seen the words hyphenated when describing the pencil-skirt dress and thought the hyphen needed to stay in the zinger, for symmetry's sake... and she may also have hoped to improve the readability of said zinger.

The style of skirt is pencil; the style of jacket is three-quarter-sleeved. I hope this is helpful.

  • Thanks a lot for all your looking through the original article! With Sven's comment below and your help, I 100% understand what Vanessa Friedman intended to write! Thanks again! Jun 2, 2015 at 12:23

The author's wording,

Put simply: written one pencil-skirt, three-quarter-sleeved jacket suit critique, written ’em all.

is just a highly compressed way of saying this:

To put it simply, if you've written one critique of a suit consisting of a pencil skirt and a three-quarter-sleeve jacket, you've written them all.

In other words, there is nothing more to be said about such suits than can be (and is) said the first time around by anyone writing about them.

The form of the original wording here plays on a phrase made famous in 1968 by Republican vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew (Richard Nixon's running mate), when he was asked whether he planned to visit a black ghetto (South Bronx in New York City, according to one account), during the presidential campaign:

"If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all."

A Google Books search for "if you've seen one X, you've seen them all" turns up no instances of the phrase earlier than Agnew's, so popular association of the expression with him has some validity.

If I were punctuating the original wording, I would include a hyphen between sleeved and jacket specifically to help readers recognize that the skirt and the jacket are the two main complementary pieces of the suit that is being critiqued:

Put simply: written one pencil-skirt, three-quarter-sleeved-jacket suit critique, written ’em all.

But as John Lawler notes in a series of comments above, there is no consensus among style guides as to the correct way to handle hyphenation in such compound phrases.

  • Thanks a lot! with the meaning cleared, it's a lot easier! much appreciated! Jun 2, 2015 at 12:22

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