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I'm having issues with figuring out which is correct:

  1. "The teacher told the students to take a 5 to 10 minute rest."

  2. "The teacher told the students to take a 5-to-10 minute rest."

  3. "The teacher told the students to take a 5-to-10-minute rest."

Thank you.

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2 Answers 2

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Various style guides offer recommendations on the more general question of how to handle suspended compounds involving numbers, but few of them address the exact subcategory of suspended compounds that involve numerical ranges. Two major U.S. style guides do have reasonably on-point advice, however.

From The Associated Press Stylebook (2007):

SUSPENSIVE HYPHENATION: The form: He received a 10- to 20-year sentence in prison.

From The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010):

7.84 Omission of part of a hyphenated expression. When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained, followed by a space.

[Relevant example:] fifteen- and twenty-year mortgages

...

7.85 Hyphenation guide for compounds and words formed with prefixes. ...

age terms [Relevant example:] a group of eight- to ten-year-olds

Summary of rule Hyphenated in both noun and adjective forms ... note the space after the first hyphen in the [previously cited] example ... The examples apply equally to ages expressed as numerals.

It's too bad that most style guides tend not to pay much attention to situations involving a suspended compound modifier within an adjective phrase that expresses a numerical range, because the issue comes up surprisingly often in manuscripts that I edit. It is clear to me from the AP example ("10- to 20-year") and the Chicago example ("eight- to ten-year-old" as an adjective) that both guides would favor handling semicentaur111's posted phrase as follows:

The teacher told the students to take a 5- to 10-minute rest.

But AP and Chicago notwithstanding, I have worked for some publishers whose house style calls for closing up the entire compound modifier with hyphens, as in option 3 in the posted question:

The teacher told the students to take a 5-to-10-minute rest.

In my view, that alternative is reasonable, too. It certainly streamlines the compound modifier.

On the other hand, I've never had to enforce the fully open form used in option 1 or the mixed form used in option 2 of the three listed in the posted question. Neither of those options strikes me as being a particularly desirable form. Option 1 leaves to the reader the entire task of figuring out which parts of the compound phrase are especially closely linked, and option 2 (in my opinion) actively misstates where the closest relationships are. But as Trevor Christopher Butcher observes in his answer, hyphenation (like all other punctuation) is supposed to provide guidance to the reader. If it doesn't seem useful to you, that's a sign that other readers may not find it useful either.

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  • Helpful answer! While proofreading, I encountered a case that gave me pause: in the medium- to long-term... I decided to change it to: in the medium-to-long term, as “term” is now the object, and “medium-to-long” describes its length. However, if “term” were used as an adjective, as in: the medium- to long-term effects (describing “effects”), that calls for a change of hyphenation. Would you agree with my conclusion?
    – Mentalist
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 2:29
  • @Mentalist: In your first example ("in the medium- to long-term"), I wouldn't use any hyphens. My reasoning is that the wording is short for "in any period of time ranging from the medium term to the long term"—and you don't need to use hyphens in that case. So I would simply leave the wording unadorned: "in the medium to long term". In your second example ("the medium- to long-term effects"), I would hyphenate as you have, with a suspended hyphen after "medium" and with "long-term" hyphenated and closed up. My preferences, however, are not law anywhere but at my house.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 4:15
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    It's funny... without hyphens was actually my first edit. Only based on readability and just, the “feel” of it. Then I started to think maybe I should group concepts together and I added hyphens. Your comment has got me thinking maybe I should have trusted my initial instinct. :-)
    – Mentalist
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 8:33
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The hyphenation used for ranges depends on the type of data and the type of sentence.

  • ... take a 5-10 minute rest (pure numeric data)
  • ... take a 5 to 10 minute rest (mixed numbers and words)
  • ... such as a typical 5-to-10 minute rest (complex noun phrases)

The most useful guide is to avoid using a more complex structure than will do the job, otherwise clarity can be lost. Punctuation is there to guide the reader.

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    It would be normal, in all but extremely formal text, to type "take a 5-10 minute rest". This would be read as "five to ten minute".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 11:50
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    You are entirely correct that the hyphenation depends on the type of data. Which is precisely why your first example is strictly speaking wrong. It uses a hyphen where an en dash is in order.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 13:31
  • Whether an en-dash or a hyphen is used depends on a number of factors, and we cannot always and should not always be guided by print industry norms. I began writing such data with a typewriter that produced hyphens and em-dashes, the latter presumably for formatting purposes. Even today, achieving an en-dash is tricky on a computer, and since most writing is to achieve a purpose rather than meet the print industry standards, I stand by my hyphen. We should always remember that, language is not about rules, it is about use and culture, because rules are less fixed than they seem. Commented Oct 18, 2018 at 14:02
  • On macOS use Option-hyphen to print an en-dash for ranges Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 14:23

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