Dealing with ages in writing can cause a lot of confusion, particularly when it comes to when you should and shouldn’t use hyphens.
As part of my real job, I end up doing a good bit of copyediting, which I normally enjoy.
One of the most common errors I see involves ages in written descriptions. It seems to me, for some reason, this type of error seems more common than it used to be and I’m not sure why that is.
The biggest problem with ages is in setups in which hyphens should be used but aren’t. I can’t tell you how often I have to make this correction, so I figured it was worth a blog post here.
First, let me quickly review the Associated Press Style regarding ages.
Normally, when dealing with numbers, AP Style dictates that you spell out any number smaller than 10, like three, seven or nine. Any number larger than nine, like 23, 402, or 5,200 would use numerals.
This is not the case with ages: whether the person you’re writing about is 4, 21 or 65, you use numerals.
That’s pretty simple, isn’t it?
The complication, however, comes in when ages are used as nouns or modifiers. When an age is used as a noun itself or when it is used before a noun as a modifier, you hyphenate it.
A hyphen goes between the numeral and the word ‘years’ and between the words ‘years’ and ‘old.’
Here’s an example of age used as a noun:
The 54-year-old was injured when the horse bucked.
The age, as a phrase, was used as a noun: we don’t even know whether we’re talking about a man or a woman as the victim of the accident: the only thing we know to identify the person is the age itself.
Here’s an example of age used as a modifier before a noun:
A 21-year-old college student created a new app to help people find the perfect vacation.
We know the subject of the sentence is college student, but the age becomes an adjective phrase describing the subject.
When the age comes after a name and a verb, such as is or was, you do not hyphenate:
Johnny is 6 years old.
Character actor Charles Lane was 102 years old when he died.
When the age comes after the noun and verb, you don’t hyphenate it. In fact, the years old part is not even a requirement: you could have dropped those words out of the sentences and it would not have changed the meaning.
Another popular way of listing someone’s age is to place it directly after the name, set apart by commas:
Mary, 27, was first to discover the crime.
Use commas in that case, not hyphens.
If you insist on using the “years young” thing instead of “years old,” the hyphens rule still applies.
And there’s a good chance you’re not fooling anyone. Just sayin’.