I was told that compound modifiers containing a noun should have the noun in the singular, e.g., "a 20-kilometer race" and "a 40-year-old man." Which of the following is okay? A dictionary uses (a). If it's correct, why?

a. They can take their three cents an hour raise and shove it.

b. They can take their three-cent-an-hour raise and shove it.

Note: This is not a question about hyphenation. It's about singular vs. plural forms in compound modifiers.

I understand (over)simplifications are involved in the EFL/ESL world. That's why I posted my question. The situation of the OP sentence is even more puzzling in that it involves a particular number, i.e., three. Examples like "weapons system" are not so incongruous as the OP example in that the former does not have a number.

Even if "three cents an hour" (or "three-cents-an-hour") is okay as an attributive modifier, what is the factual generalization that renders it okay but rules out "a three-years-old boy"?

  • Unless you're constrained by some specific style guide because of your job or something, this is a stylistic choice. Bear in mind that the modern tendency is for less and/or "lighter" punctuation in English. Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 13:30
  • We often hyphenate attributive multi-word adjectival phrases (that come before the noun - raise in your example). Which we never do if it's a predicative usage (after the noun), as in The raise is three cents an hour. I note you randomly switched from plural to singular cent in your examples (both are fine), but note that the singular doesn't work at all in a predicative construction. Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 13:36
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  • @FumbleFingers This is not a question about hyphenation. It's about singular vs. plural forms. You are not reading the question carefully.
    – Apollyon
    Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 14:52
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    In that case it's a badly-framed question. Why randomly switch from hyphenated to non-hyphenated in your examples? Commented Feb 2, 2023 at 15:04


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