One or two things about numbers

A colleague has encountered a sentence of the type “This will happen in one-to-two months.” She’s wondering about those hyphens.

And well she should be. They have to go. It’s not optional. Otherwise it’s presenting a type of month with the quality of “one-to-two” in the same way as “two-by-four boards” are boards with the quality of being two inches by four inches. A “moderate-to-severe infection” is “an infection that is moderate to severe”; “one to two months” is not “months that are one to two”.

In cases like this, some people are confused by the use of hyphens in something like “a two-month decline”. But this is not that. In a case like that, the head noun is “decline”, and “two-month” is hyphenated because it is part of a compound modifier. In the case of “one to two months”, “months” is the head noun and the numbers are quantifying it – they are not adjectives, they are quantifiers. That’s another point of confusion some people get into: treating numbers as though they were adjectives. (It doesn’t help that CP Style, presumably for reasons of readability in newspaper columns, prescribes, for instance, “two-million” rather than the standard “two million”.)

“One to two months” is not a set of months with the quality “one to two”; it is “one month to two months” with the first “month” removed. (A similar deletion, but of the final “months”, is seen in “a month or two”, which we don’t write “a- month -or-two”.) We can use a dash to replace “to” in, for instance, “1–2”, but we don’t use dashes (or hyphens) and “to” with number ranges.

5 responses to “One or two things about numbers

  1. I’m trying to find the rules for this sentence, “One to two page personal statement describing the applicant’s research interests”

    It would be “Two-page” if the range option wasn’t there. So, how do I show that “One to two” is modifying “page” and “One to two page” is modifying “personal statement”

  2. “The usual way is ‘one- to two-page statement’ with a detached hyphen on the ‘one-‘ to show coordination with the ‘two-page.’”
    Thank you for this! I was struggling to explain this to a client and I borrowed your clear, concise language.

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