From the Vault: Hyphens and En Dashes the MLA Way

By Angela Gibson

For more than half a century, the MLA’s editorial practice, initially under the guidance of Claire Cook, has included three distinct preferences when it comes to forming compounds using en dashes and hyphens.

1. The MLA does not use an en dash for compound adjectives formed from lowercase open compounds and another word. Instead, we hyphen the entire compound:

civil rights legislation → post-civil-rights legislation

(not post–civil rights legislation)

cultural studies program → cultural-studies-based approach

(not cultural studies­–based approach)

We do, however, use an en dash when a single compound adjective is a proper noun:

pre–Industrial Revolution city

When the multiword element is mixed case or includes a hyphenated term, we prefer to reword:

My coworker is obsessed with Brittany spaniels.

(not I have a Brittany-spaniel-obsessed coworker or I have a Brittany spaniel–obsessed coworker)

The officers’ council was established to convene court-martials.

(not The officers’ council was established as a court-martial–convening entity)

But we are tolerant of mixed-case compounds composed of prefixes:

The class was intended for the non-French-speaking student.

2. We hyphen certain adjective compounds in both attributive and predicate positions. More specifically, we hyphen in both positions an adjective compound formed from a noun or an adjective that is in syntactic relation to a participle or an adjective. For example:

His loyalty, though fear-inspired, was unswerving.
His politics were communist-oriented.
With hundreds of acres, they were land-rich but poverty-stricken.

We use an en dash when a compound in the predicate position includes a proper noun:

The crowd was Beyoncé Knowles–obsessed.

We also recommend hyphening both before and after the noun a compound made up of an adjective or a noun plus an -ed form derived from a noun. For example:

    Toucans are rainbow-beaked.
    The rainbow-beaked toucan is an icon.
    Use a coarse-grained flour in the recipe.
    The recipe calls for a flour that is coarse-grained.
    The redemption-themed novel is assigned for Monday’s class.
    Monday’s assigned novel is redemption-themed.

But when the -ed compound in the predicate is derived from a verb, the compound remains open:

chocolate frosted
    The vanilla-buttercream, unicorn-shaped wedding cake that I ordered arrived chocolate frosted and in the form of one of Santa’s reindeer.

3. The MLA tends to hyphen temporary mid compounds—that is, those not given as vocabulary entries in the dictionary. For example:

At mid-century the practice flourished.
The mid-eighteenth-century writer broke with tradition.

But we use an en dash with temporary mid noun compounds when the conjoining term is more than one word:

In the mid–eighteenth century the practice flourished.

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Published 19 September 2017

4 comments on “From the Vault: Hyphens and En Dashes the MLA Way”

  1. I have student who wants to use a passage that has a hyphenation in it at the end of a line. Does she leave it hyphenated if it is not at the end of a line in her writing? Does she leave it and use a [sic]? Please advise

  2. Do you use an en dash in a sentence when you want to offset another idea? Or do you use two hyphens? or just commas?

    • Two hyphens and the em dash (not en) are interchangeable; they mean the same thing. Just be consistent in using one or the other in a given piece of writing. Whether to use the dashes/hyphens or a comma depends on the sentence.

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