vault

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:

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

Think you have this down? Take our quiz!

Published 19 September 2017

Join the Conversation

We invite you to comment on this post. Comments are moderated and subject to the terms of service.

If you have a question about MLA style, ask us! Questions submitted through this comment form will not be answered.

Fields marked with * are required.

Your e-mail address will not be published.

Get MLA Style News from The Source

Be the first to read new posts and updates about MLA style.

The Source Sign-up - Style Center Footer

Skip to toolbar