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When I read "two- or three-note riff," I sense an emphasis on the riff containing two notes with an occasional third note; whereas, a two-or-three-note riff seems to mean either or.

Am I reading too much here? That is, do grammatical rules specify a difference between the two methods?

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    This isn't really a grammar question, but one of orthography. And then it is a matter of style, so it depends who you are writing for. I, personally, strongly dislike the hyphen on the first word of pairs like this and so I would write "two or three-note riff". But f I am writing for someone else, I will follow their style guide.
    – user184130
    May 24, 2018 at 21:17
  • All but a few stacked hyphenated compound modifiers tend to be frowned upon in formal writing, which means that the example using suspended hyphenation is more standard. It means 'either/or', nothing more subtle. May 24, 2018 at 22:33
  • There is a subtle difference. One is a choice between a "two-note riff" and a "three-note riff"; the other is a riff that can have either two or three notes . . . (But, practically speaking, they are the same.) May 24, 2018 at 23:15

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The difference is subtle, but in practice negligible, as noted by @jason-brassford. The question is whether "two or three" modifies "riff" (the first case, where the first "note" is implied) or "note" (the second case), which can be clarified with the use of parentheses.

  • "two- or three-note riff" = (two-note) or (three-note) riff = a riff that may contain two notes or three notes.

  • "two-or-three-note riff" = ((two-or-three) note) riff = a riff that contains notes that may number two or three

You can decide which to use based on which words you want to group together (for instance, if you suffer from OCPD) or which appears more asthetically pleasing (ie, follow the style guide).

Why isn't it "two-or-three note riff"?

  • "two-or-three note riff" = (two or three) (note riff) = a note riff that is, or numbers, two or three — What is a "note riff"?

    Some might argue that this example should expand to "((two-or-three) note) riff" or that the given expansion should have been written "two-or-three, note riff". Both are, however, not correct:

    • two-or-three, note riff = a riff that is both two-or-three (in number?) and note — Same problem, "What is a "note riff"?

Another example of hyphens indicating word grouping:

  • "world-wide web" = (world-wide) web = a web that is world wide

  • "world wide web" = world (wide web) = a wide web that is world (???)

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  • I recommend "two- or three-note riff".
    – tautophile
    May 25, 2018 at 4:57

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