Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes

Q. Hi. I work for a county auditor’s office which publishes a voters’ guide for each general election and primary. Each candidate writes his or her own statement to the voters, as do supporters and opponents of ballot measures. In the interest of space and fairness, we limit the number of words each writer can use. Our recurring question: should we count a hyphenated word group (such as “32-year-old”) as one word or three? I’m in favor of counting such constructions as one word. What’s your vote? Thanks!

A. Those three words are hyphenated only because they form an adjective phrase. It would hardly be fair to dock candidate A (“a 32-year-old teacher”) one word for “32-year-old” and candidate B (“who first ran for office when she was 32 years old”) three words for “32 years old.” On the other hand, an argument for your system is that a computer might count “32-year-old” as one word, and you might feel you needed the convenience and objectivity of computer counting. But if your motives are fairness and logic, I would count each word as a word, whether it’s hyphenated or not. (An exception might be words with prefixes, which Chicago style does not hyphenate but many writers do: pre-date, anti-war, etc.) Good luck—either way, you’ll probably have objections from the candidates.