Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes

Q. I am curious why CMOS hyphenates “president-elect” but leaves “vice president elect” open. Would “vice president–elect” (with an en dash) not be more consistent? And why is “president-elect” hyphenated even when the term doesn’t precede a noun?

A. Good questions. The word “elect” is an adjective that’s being used postpositively, or after the noun. A postpositive adjective sometimes joins to the noun it modifies with a hyphen (e.g., “knight-errant”), but in most cases it does not (“professor emeritus,” “surgeon general,” “president pro tempore”).

Merriam-Webster includes an entry for “president-elect” as a noun, which is why we hyphenate that term (the hyphen may help prevent a misreading of “elect” as a verb), but it doesn’t include a corresponding entry for “vice president” with elect. Our reluctance to require an en dash with a lowercase open compound (see CMOS 6.80) factored into our decision to continue to leave that term open as a noun.

We also looked at government documents. In the Twentieth Amendment to the US Constitution, one of the few such documents that uses the terms, you’ll find “President elect” and “Vice President elect” (no hyphens). Another official document, the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, has “President-elect” and “Vice-President-elect” (one hyphen and two, respectively), but “Vice President” (without a hyphen) when “elect” isn’t tacked on. Neither document uses these as titles before a name.

But in the real world, these terms are used as titles before a name, and had we shown examples of this usage in our hyphenation table at CMOS 7.89 (or under “Titles and Offices” in chapter 8), we would have advised either two hyphens (“vice-president-elect So-and-So”) or an en dash (“vice president–elect So-and-So”). But, had we capitalized the term as a formal title, the en dash would have prevailed (though “elect,” which isn’t part of the title, would remain lowercase): “Vice President–elect Kamala Harris.” (For our preference for lowercase in a phrase like “former vice president Joe Biden” versus uppercase in a phrase like “Vice President Pence,” see CMOS 8.21.)

Uppercase or lower, the arc of editorial history appears to be bending toward greater use of the en dash, as en dash–literate questions like yours continue to demonstrate. Will they play a bigger role in future editions of CMOS? Perhaps we should take a vote.