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I could write "There are who knows how many dogs at the park", but should I hyphenate so that it says "There are who-knows-how-many dogs at the park"?

I don't know what the New York Times does on this front or what other media outlets do on this front; does anyone know what standard practice is on this front?

Here's an example of hyphenation:

https://time.com/5241519/tess-sat

Much more important, there are who-knows-how-many planets circling those stars, and there’s at least a chance that there will be organisms on some of them that could smile for the camera.

Last edited by Andrew Van Wagner
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Hi, Andrew—I recommend changing "who knows" to "God knows" or "I don't know" and then punctuating without hyphens. That is the approach of Huddleston and Pullum in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), which has a section "On the construction He made I don't know how many mistakes" (pp. 984-985), which cites God knows as a variant:

  • There are God knows how many planets circling those stars.
  • There are I don't know how many planets circling those stars.

I'm not sure what the basis of their recommendation is, though; I don't oppose their approach, but I also don't know what makes their approach superior in any way.

It is I who have made the recommendation; I have simply used Huddleston & Pullum as a reference. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is the most recent comprehensive grammar of English. It is respected by linguists worldwide and is published by one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in the entire world. Why would you dare to doubt its value?

I apologize for the confusion; I don't doubt the resource's value or anything's value or anyone's value, but rather I was just wondering in this particular instance what the argument would be for going with the option that you recommended, since sometimes it's evident why something is superior but in this particular case it's not obvious to me why this option is better than a given alternative.

Sorry for the confusion on that front, and thanks again for the excellent help!

My main point was that this grammar shows us, with its examples of the construction, that the use of hyphens is entirely unnecessary. My secondary point, that it might be good to change "who knows" to "God knows" or "I don't know," is simply based on the fact that they do not cite that variant.

However, like you, I find "there are who knows how . . ."  to be idiomatic; so, as far as I'm concerned, you can just delete the hyphens; I don't care whether you keep "who knows" or go with "God." Another possibility, of course, is just to begin with the rhetorical question rather than embedding it:

Much more important, there are who-knows-how-many planets circling those stars, and there’s at least a chance that there will be organisms on some of them that could smile for the camera.

  • Much more important, who knows how many planets there are circling those stars? There's at least a chance that there will be organisms on some of them that could smile for the camera.
Last edited by David, Moderator

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