My (BrE) OED and (AmE) dictionary.com both list the adjective 'middle-class' with a hyphen. The OED provides these examples:

a middle-class attitude
The magazine is very middle-class.

The (AmE) CMOS provides these examples:

a middle-class neighborhood
the neighborhood is middle class

OED lists the adjective 'up to date' with no hyphens and provides these examples:

This technology is bang up to date.
up-to-date clothes

dictionary.com lists the adjective 'up-to-date' with hyphens CMOS and provides these examples:

His equipment was up to date
an up-to-date solution

It appears the principle of hyphenating compound adjectives before nouns is treated differently by dictionaries using BrE and AmE. It appears:

  • BrE dictionaries may list compound adjectives as hyphenated or not; they assume writers will always hyphenate them before nouns, but
  • AmE dictionaries always compound adjectives as hyphenated; they assume writers will NOT hyphenate them after nouns.

I hope someone has a satisfactory explanation. I fear I'm about to have a nervous breakdown. :(

  • I think this needs more examples to really validate the pattern you're inferring. (i.e. I'm not yet convinced that this is a real pattern)
    – Mitch
    Jan 27, 2018 at 15:41
  • FAIR ENOUGH! ... I will work on that ... But you see the pattern that bothers me! ... HALLELUJAH! I have looked for other examples but the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary does not give many sample sentences. Do you know of an online American English dictionary that does list a significant number of examples? For my purposes, I need examples after nouns. Jan 27, 2018 at 15:56
  • This is not the actual OED. This is the Oxford Learners Dictionary. And I suspect the reason they only have hyphenated examples is that they only considered hyphenated examples, because they're defining a hyphenated word. The actual OED (only available through libraries, universities, subscriptions, etc.) has non-hyphenated examples, such as "The tests were geared to white middle class society." Jan 27, 2018 at 17:00
  • @PeterShor. It is no Mickey Mouse dictionary. It has almost 2,000 densely packed pages. It has only about two-thirds of the number of definitions as the OED and perhaps some are shorter. It has some additional features designed to help to those learning English as a second language. I would be ASTONISHED if it defined ANYTHING shown differently in both. Jan 27, 2018 at 19:02
  • That's very confusing, then. Online, the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary has the example "The magazine is very middle-class." The online OED, which I can access through my university, does not have this example under "middle class". Jan 27, 2018 at 19:21

2 Answers 2


I doubt whether this is anything to do with American of British usage, and I think you question is based on false premises which I shall deal with as an appendix. My doubt is supported (as far as this is indicative) by a Google ngram analysis of the use of the alternatives ‘middle class attitude’ and ‘middle class-attitude’ in British and US books:

British v. US use of middle-class

Of course, there may be differences in writing in journalism or specialized technical publications, but this does not lead one to believe there is any tradition of different usage.

The examples in Oxford Dictionaries online (not the OED) provide illustrations using what is recognized as standard good style to avoid what Fowler called ‘false scent’.

Consider the alternatives in the first example:

(1) a middle class attitude

(2) a middle-class attitude

If I read (1) the noun ‘middle’ follows the article ‘a’, so for a moment I think the phrase refers to that. However it actually refers to ‘attitude’ and middle is used as part of a compound adjective. I have taken ‘false scent’ and have to readjust. If I read (2) the hyphen prevents this as I read ‘middle’ along with ‘class’. The writer has helped me read his work — regardless of my nationality — to the benefit of both of us.

Now take an example of the predicative use of the adjective (below). Here the noun ‘attitude’ precedes the compound adjective, so there is little chance of ‘false scent’ and the hyphen may be omitted.

His attitude is so middle class.

Addendum: False Premises in the Question

My answer attempts to address those parts of the question which I think are answerable and on-topic here, and avoids accepting the following, what I consider, false premises:

  1. That the sources quoted are dictionaries in the historical sense of the word. Printed dictionaries generally define words, provide spellings and perhaps plurals. The full OED provides examples of first usages. These on-line resources provide modern examples of usage, either invented or selected to reflect the editorial style of the site. Printed dictionaries generally do not do this. Comparing two such on-line resources and attributing their differences to one characteristic (nationality) whithout further evidence is really unsupportable.

  2. Dictionary.com only uses US dictionaries. According to Wikipedia, “The content for Dictionary.com is based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, with other content from the Collins English Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary and others.”

  3. US writers consult dictionary.com, whereas British writers consult Oxford Dictionaries online. I would suggest most people use what Google throws at them.

  4. Professional writers consult on-line dictionaries to find out how to hyphenate words. I would suggest that most use whatever style they have used for years. As a scientist in an area where there is a vast potential for clumsy compound nounal adjectives I learned from criticism from my mentors or editorial reviewers. I have published in British and American scientific journals and found no difference in this respect.

  • @sumelic. Thanks. I have decided to ask two new questions, one for those who use British English, the other for American English. There DEFINITELY is a difference between how the OED and M-WD treat compound adjectives AFTER nouns. Jan 27, 2018 at 8:05
  • @sumelic — Then Ross will presumably not accept my answer. That is how SE works. (He may even vote it down or have voted it down). But I deliberately did not answer the question as he wanted because it is based on false premises. I will modify my answer to clarify.
    – David
    Jan 27, 2018 at 11:42
  • Who says: 3. British writers consult dictionary.com, whereas US writers consult Oxford Dictionaries? Not the OP. And you should give evidence of invented examples of modern usage added to online dictionaries. This might be true, but I feel that is your personal viewpoint, not something based on real-life observation.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 27, 2018 at 13:42
  • So that the OP does not suffer from a nervous breakdown, perhaps you should clearly state your nationality. English, Scottish, Welsh or just plain British?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 27, 2018 at 13:45
  • @David. False premises be damned. PLEASE READ the examples sentences at the top of the OP. BOTH The Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries define “middle-class” with a hyphen. The OED provides this example: The magazine is very middle-class. CMOS uses the M-WD. It provides this example sentence BECAUSE that is what the M-WD would recommend: the neighborhood is middle class. I WILL be satisfied and happy as soon as anyone can explain why the TRANSLATION from the dictionaries' definitions to their examples are different. Jan 27, 2018 at 14:54

I think your focus on those hyphens in dictionaries may have over-specialised your question a bit.

I assumed that the use of a hyphen after the noun would simply depend on whether the compound adjective is treated as an established expression, and a quick search led indeed to grammarbook.com:

Generally, hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective.

an off-campus apartment
state-of-the-art design

When a compound adjective follows a noun, a hyphen is usually not necessary.

Example: The apartment is off campus.

However, some established compound adjectives are always hyphenated. Double-check with a dictionary or online.

Example: The design is state-of-the-art.

Now, as is so often the case with spelling, that last bit doesn't actually help anyone to figure out how to spell a compound adjective. It merely explains why some of them take a hyphen.

So, going by your examples, it seems that the OED simply regards middle-class as an established compound adjective, or a set expression, whereas CMOS does not.

The real problem here is that deciding on how "established" an expression is, is a very subjective process, and without any actual, definitive, prescriptive authority on the English language, you will simply have to choose your own sources (i.e. dictionaries) if you want to back up your decision to use a hyphen in a compound adjective or not.

And yes, in general you will find differences between dictionaries roughly following the lines of different English dialects, but in some cases, as your middle(-)class example shows, even two dictionaries following the same dialect may disagree on the finer points of a compound adjective's being established.

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