Hyphens, En Dashes, Em Dashes

Q. In my office we have noticed a trend in Merriam-Webster to show previously closed compound words as hyphenated, such as “antiracist” and “antilabor.” CMOS clearly has a spare hyphenation style and lists prefixes as usually closed. Which should we follow when the two sources disagree? I would lean toward continuing to close compounds like “antiracist” and “antilabor” and use CMOS as our source, but we have been going in circles for a year now on this debate. Please help.

A. What you are noticing is the result of Merriam-Webster’s decision to create individual entries for a whole bunch of compounds that in earlier versions of its dictionaries—both the one at Merriam-Webster.com and the printed Collegiate—were simply listed under the applicable prefixes. These entries were added after the publication of CMOS 17.

In the earlier lists, most of these terms were closed, clearly as a matter of editorial principle rather than (as for the main dictionary entries) common usage. For example, if you consult a first printing of the Collegiate (11th ed., 2003), you’ll find, under the prefix anti-, “antifur” and “antiwar”—along with “antiracist” and “antilabor” and dozens of other closed compounds. Only a term like “anti-immigration” (double i) or “anti-Soviet” (capital S) merits a hyphen. Under non- and pre-, hyphenation is strictly limited to terms with capital letters (e.g., “nonnews” but “non-Marxist” and “preelectric” but “pre-Christmas”).

And though the majority of compounds formed with prefixes remain closed in Merriam-Webster, all but one of the unhyphenated examples mentioned above are now hyphenated, either as a main entry or as a variant (“antifur” is the sole exception).

Going forward, there are some definite advantages to following the editorial approach described in section 4 of the hyphenation guide at CMOS 7.89. It’s easier than looking up each term in Merriam-Webster, and the results will be more consistent. Plus, you can invoke rule no. 3 (in the intro to section 4) and add a hyphen to a compound like “antifur,” which is awkward without one, despite what the dictionary might have. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster can continue to act as arbiter in any remaining cases of doubt.

For some additional perspective, see our Shop Talk post on this subject.