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Preparing a report in which there are several categories rated. Should the phrase read "The top three categories are .." or should there be a hyphen " The top-three categories are..."

  • In top-ten singles (not always hyphenated), top-ten is a compound adjective meaning '[items] that have reached the "top ten" in the charts' (perhaps years ago). But referring to a list, a hyphen is never used: 'the top four were A, B, C and D". 'Top' is a simple adjective of notional positioning (ex locational) and 'four' is perhaps best regarded as a nominal. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 2 at 18:26
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No hyphen, top and three are independent adjectives. But of one the top three items, you could write that it is a top-three item.

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