My gut tells me the correct answer is "50-or-so candles," since the "50-or-so" is a modifier of candles -- just how many candles are we talking?

  • What does a Google search for "50-or-so" seem to indicate? Commented May 3, 2017 at 1:01
  • @EdwinAshworth Now and prior to my posting this question, that search indicated the opposite of my hypothesis, hence why I'm here, asking you folks. Commented May 3, 2017 at 12:44
  • That information would have been better given with your question. 'Gut reactions' are almost always trumped by patterns of usage, and the unhyphenated form is far more common. @Karl Hagen's answer explains the current trend towards only hyphenating compound premodifiers / quantifiers etc when necessary to clarify. I won't downvote it as it's so well expressed, but it is by no means the first time it has been given on ELU. Commented May 3, 2017 at 16:51

2 Answers 2


Hyphenation is one of the slipperiest parts of usage, and style guides differ. A common rule of thumb is that compound modifiers of nouns are hyphenated, but you typically don't see this stricture given as an absolute dictate (see, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style). Rather, you hyphenate when there would otherwise be ambiguity. For example, a "fast-sailing ship" is not necessarily the same as a "fast sailing ship."

In your example, there's no ambiguity in omitting the hyphens, and so if you choose to leave them out, there's no real problem unless you're writing for a publication whose style guide mandates hyphenated modifiers in every instance.


I think 50-or-so candles is definitely right, but sadly correct hyphenation is falling in disgrace, so most people will probably regard it as wrong, even if it isn't. Therefore, I would suggest completely avoiding that wording. In addition to the question of hyphenation, it is ugly and lazy. "About 50/fifty candles" does the job at least as well, it is shorter, and there are no hyphens.

See this: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/word-formation/hyphens. This guide explains when hyphens are "usually employed" and explicitly mentions that hyphens are becoming less common nowadays. However, the way I learnt it 100 years ago [♣], these rules are not optional, so I would recommend you always follow them, especially in formal writing (for example, in academical publications).

Also worth checking out: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/about-nouns/nouns-compound-nouns

[♣] Just kidding. I'm 37. However, the internet sometimes makes me feel very old. I have the feeling that the English language has deteriorated rapidly since the advent of the internet and mobile messaging.

  • Fair point with the "about fifty" phrasing. Hyphenation is basically non-existent online these days. Commented May 3, 2017 at 12:45
  • As tchrist has posted elsewhere on ELU, "We are looking for more substantial answers with documented references, not merely [statements that may possibly be no more than] personal opinion. Those are just comments, not answers." Commented May 3, 2017 at 16:46
  • @ Edwin Ashworth. OK. I will try to remember that in the future. To honour this promise, I added a link to a reliable source.
    – Janey E.
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 2:13

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