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I had to come up with an "edit-the-mistakes" worksheet for a Special Education student on-the-fly. One of my offerings was this sentence:

When I was three years old I can tie my shoes.

I had intended the correction to be this sentence:

When I was three-years-old, I could tie my shoes.

I know that my sentence correction is stylistically weak; however, I believe it is grammatically correct. A coworker "corrected" me in front of my student saying that it did not need a comma, but my thought was that "when" is being used as a preposition. My question is this: is the phrase "When I was three-years-old" a prepositional phrase? I looked at a number of prepositional word lists online and "when" does not appear on any of them.

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    Depends on what grammatical sect you belong to. In traditional grammar when is a subordinating conjunction; in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language it's a preposition. In neither case is a comma required. ... And the hyphens are neither required nor desirable. – StoneyB Mar 2 '18 at 17:39
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    We normally only hyphenate the noun form He is a three-year-old, not the adjectival He is three years old. – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '18 at 17:40
  • @FumbleFingers Hyphens are permissible, and possibly desirable, when the phrase is employed as an attributive adjective: A three-year-old child – StoneyB Mar 2 '18 at 17:43
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    @Tom: If anything, I'd say its the other way round. Three-year-olds must not be left unsupervised, for example, is a perfectly acceptable plural noun form - which might imply ellipsis of child, but it might actually be a reference to three-year-old elephants or some other kind of animal. But because the default starting position is that we hyphenate the noun form, when it's used as an "attributive adjective" (noun used as adjective, as in a car aerial, a five-o'clock shadow), it retains the orthography of the noun, even though it's functioning as an adjective. – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '18 at 18:20
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    The comma is not required, but it’s also not incorrect in any way. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 2 '18 at 19:36
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In a comment, StoneyB answered:

Depends on what grammatical sect you belong to. In traditional grammar when is a subordinating conjunction; in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language it's a preposition. In neither case is a comma required. ... And the hyphens are neither required nor desirable.

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"I could tie my shoes." can stand on its own as a complete sentence.

I believe that "When I was three years old" is an adverbial clause. It modifies the verb "could tie" and, as do all adverbial clauses, this one contains a subject and a verb.

"When" is most often an adverb as it usually modifies a verb indicating time.

  • Welcome to English Language & Usage. A proper answer will include the sources of information forming the answer. This answer doesn't seem convincing, even to the author. – J. Taylor Mar 2 '18 at 18:16
  • Not a good answer, Glenn. In trad grammar, "when" is only an adverb when it's an interrogative as in "When are you going to Paris?", and in relative clauses, e.g. "I remember the day when you were born". Otherwise, it's a subordinating conjunction or in modern grammar a preposition. Whichever analysis is preferred, "When I was three years old" is a temporal adjunct in clause structure. – BillJ Mar 3 '18 at 8:27
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I know this post is a year and a half old, but I want to comment that your comma is correct and necessary. I don't know why you were told by others that it's not. However, you do not need to hyphenate 'three years old' in the way that you used it in the sentence.

When a sentence begins with a dependent clause ('when' is a subordinating conjunction here), a comma follows that dependent clause. Examples: When I was three years old, I could tie my shoes. (comma is necessary) Because I need to get in shape, I am going to start going to the gym three days a week. (comma is necessary)

If the dependent clause is at the end...meaning that the subordinating conjunction is in the middle of the sentence, then no comma is necessary. Examples: I could tie my shoes when I was three years old. (no comma) I am going to start going to the gym three days a week because I need to get in shape. (no comma)

Regarding the hyphenated age... In your sentence, 'three years old' is a predicative adjective following the linking verb and describing 'I.' No hyphen is used when '___ years old' comes after the noun it describes. (When I was three years old,....) However, if it is used as a noun (When I was a three-year-old,....) or as an adjective that comes before the noun (When I was a three-year-old girl,....), then you need to hyphenate it.

NOTE: These are not opinions, but rather correct English grammar that can easily be found on a number of reputable online sites. (Not all websites are created equal by the way.) I have numerous references if you need them. Additionally, I have a master's degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and have taught English for 14 years.

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    Kristen, thanks for the answer. Can you please provide the references? The purpose of the site is to give definitive, supported answers so that people who come by with a similar question have something to use. – jimm101 Sep 18 at 20:51

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