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My granddaughter's first-grade reading papers frequently use the term "high frequency words." I'm guessing it refers to words used frequently. But, if the term "high frequency words" is correctly used, shouldn't it then be "high-frequency words"?

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The short answer: it doesn't require a hyphen.

The longer answer:

Generally speaking, you don't need a hyphen in a compound modifier (like "high frequency") if there is no ambiguity without one, according to the Chicago Manual of Style.

If "frequency words" could be considered a compound noun, then we would need a hyphen there; since it cannot, we don't.

  • Thanks. I think, however, that "words used frequently" makes more sense. – Grandma Dec 5 '15 at 0:16
  • @Grandma Yes, that would be less ambiguous (i.e. not words pitched at a high tone), but the term "high frequency words" is now something of a standard phrase. Have a look at gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/… and highfrequencywords.org . – Lawrence Dec 5 '15 at 1:17
  • I think the NY Times stylebook would disagree with CMS; I actually find it less ambiguous to put the hyphen, and I rarely agree with the NYT. But the bottom line is that we're talking about differing stylebooks, not grammar. It's a personal choice, mostly. – Steven Littman Dec 5 '15 at 13:06

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