The Grammarphobia Blog

Hyphenated Americans

Q: Does “African American” or “Asian American” require a hyphen, especially when used as an adjective?

A: In writing Origins of the Specious, our book about  English myths and misconceptions, we asked ourselves the same question.

In the end, we (along with the editors at Random House) decided to hyphenate African-American ONLY as a compound adjective preceding a noun (as in “an African-American idiom”).

We decided not to hyphenate it as a noun phrase (as in “African Americans” or “he is an African American”).

This decision, we felt, treats these terms in the ordinary way. A compound adjective is normally hyphenated before a noun (as in “a piece of early-American furniture”) while a single adjective needs no hyphen (“a piece of early Americana”).

We would do the same with “Asian Americans”—omitting the hyphen in the noun phrase, but hyphenating the compound adjective (“Asian-American cuisine”).

But what you decide to do is up to you. Style guides differ on this question. Some do as we do, but some recommend omitting the hyphen in all cases, even in the compound adjective.

This isn’t a matter of correct or incorrect usage. It’s an issue of style and, in the view of some, avoiding offense because of negative associations with the term “hyphenated American.”

Here, for example, is the advice given in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.):

“Whether terms such as African American, Italian American, Chinese American, and the like should be spelled open or hyphenated has been the subject of considerable controversy, the hyphen being regarded by some as suggestive of bias. Chicago doubts that hyphenation represents bias, but since the hyphen does not aid comprehension in such terms as those mentioned above, it may be omitted unless a particular publisher requires it.”

Elsewhere, in a table giving the Chicago Manual’s hyphenation rules for proper nouns and adjectives relating to geography or nationality, the same advice is given. Examples include “African Americans” and “African American president.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), in its entry for “hyphenated,”  has a usage note that takes a strong position against using the term “hyphenated Americans” for US citizens of foreign origin and their descendants:

“Naturalized immigrants to the United States and their descendants have sometimes been called hyphenated Americans in reference to the tendency to hyphenate such ethnic compounds as Irish-American and Polish-American. This term has come under strong criticism as suggesting that those so designated and not as fully American as ‘unhyphenated’ citizens. It is best avoided in all but historical contexts.”

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees that the expression “hyphenated American” suggests “a person whose patriotic allegiance is assumed to be divided.”

The OED says the phrase originated in the United States in the late 19th century, but the dictionary’s earliest citations are from British sources.

The first published reference, from an 1893 dictionary of slang, has a neutral definition: “Hyphenated American, a naturalised citizen, as German-Americans, Irish-Americans, and the like.”

But the next citation, from the Aug. 15, 1900, issue of the Daily News in London, hints at bias: “My opponents were of the hyphenated variety—Dutch-Americans and Irish-Americans predominating.”

And the next citation, from the Jan. 3, 1904, issue of the Westminster Gazette, is clear about it: “American politics, where men who call themselves Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Dutch-Americans, and so on, are contemptuously referred to as ‘hyphenated Americans.’ ”

In case you’re interested, we wrote a posting a couple of years ago about the terms “African American” and “black American.”

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