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Compound adjectives preceding a noun are hyphenated, but how does one properly hyphenate locations? Please include sources.

E.g.

hyphenated, compound adjective: state-of-the-art technology

city, state compound adjective: Denver, Colorado-based company

location with multiple words: Mountain View, California-based company

example options:

  • Denver-Colorado-based

  • Denver, Colorado-based

  • Denver-, Colorado-, based

  • Denver-based, Colorado-based,

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    There is no compound adjective in your question. Denver and Colorado are proper nouns.
    – Lambie
    Sep 20, 2018 at 18:42
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    Ain't no "properly" here, so I can't answer your question. The alternatives all look wrong to you, so do what you should always try to do in such circumstances — rephrase: "A company based in Denver, Colorado".
    – David
    Sep 28, 2018 at 12:45
  • @David Yes, that has been said.
    – Lambie
    Nov 4, 2018 at 19:12
  • Denver- (Colorado-) based (though I'd avoid this unless absolutely necessary, eg in an accurate transcript). Aug 3, 2021 at 11:58

6 Answers 6

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I have encountered versions of this issue many times over the years in my editing work. The most common instance involves "Washington DC based" (rather than "Denver, Colorado based," as in the posted question) used as a phrasal adjective, but the underlying issue is the same. An Ngram chart for "Washington DC based" over the period 1950–2019 yields the following curve:

(Here is a link to the graph version of the Ngram data, in case the chart version refuses to display properly.) As you can see, there has been something of a rise and fall of the usage over the past half century, from virtually 0% in 1970 to a height of 0.0000001423% in 1997 to roughly one-third that figure in 3018. Although some of the underlying matches are false positives (instances where "Washington DC based" does not function as an adjective phrase), the majority are indeed instance of "Washington DC based [noun]." The issue comes up fairly frequently because "Washington based" by itself is ambiguous as to whether it refers to the city in the District of Columbia or the State in the Pacific Northwest.

So how do published writers handle the punctuation of "Washington DC based"? Let's count the ways.

From Sci-Tech News, volumes 23–25 (1969–1971):

Information Resources Press, a division of Herner and Company, Washington, D.C.—based library and information consulting firm, has announced the availability of the College Suggestor, a manual desk-top information retrieval system for selecting colleges and universities on the basis of combinations of desired attributes or characteristics, is being marketed by Information Resources Press, 2100 M St., N.W., Washington, D.C.

This form includes a comma after "Washington," two periods in "D.C." and what appears to be an em dash between "D.C." and "based." I suspect that the phenomenon of using an em dash rather than an en dash in this setting reflects the limited type character options at some publishing houses in the very early 1970s. The same source also offers this form:

Information Resources Press, a division of Herner and Company, Washington, D. C.-based library and information consulting firm, today announced the publication of its latest book, Exhibits of Sources of Scientific and Technical Information by Saul Herner and Jeanne C. Moody.

with a letter space between "D." and "C." and a hyphen rather than an em dash between "C." and "based."

The Food Institute's Weekly Digest, volume 79 (1972) punctuates the phrase at least two different ways in the same volume:

Emersons, Ltd., (formerly General Restaurants, Inc.), nine-unit, Washington D.C.-based restaurant chain, plans to add three new eating facilities in Washington, Baltimore, and Princeton, N.J., according to a recently issued prospectus.

and

An experimental program which labeled each variety of ground beef by percentage of fat content was tried by Giant Good, Inc., Washington, D.C.-based chain.

Both instances put two periods in "D.C." and a hyphen between "D.C." and "based"—but the first has no comma after "Washington" and the second one includes a comma there. (Having lived in D.C. for a couple of years, I believe that "Giant Good, Inc." is a typo for "Giant Food, Inc."—but that is a separate issue.)

From Black Business Digest, volume 3 (1973):

The McLean brothers, Alphonso S., left, and Edward B., 3rd from left, president and executive vice president, A. E. McLean Co., Inc., Washington, D. C. — based office furniture, supplies and interior design firm, flank Burkeley G. Burrell, 2nd from left, president of the National Business League, as H. Naulor Fitzhugh, vice president, Pepsico, Inc., New York City, looks on.

The clear winner for profligate space occupancy, this format features a comma after "Washington," a letter space between "D." and "C." (with periods after each), and an em dash with letter spaces on either side of it between "C." and "based."

From Black Times, issue 8 (1975):

The architect for the renovation of the famed 63-year old historic landmark is Luther Bruner Jr, principal in the Washington DC-based firm, Hawkins and Bruner.

This publisher omitted the comma after Washington and the periods from "DC," but included the hyphen between "DC" and "based." There is also no comma before "Jr," no period after "Jr," and (least excusably) no hyphen between "63-year" and "old."

From Manpower Information Service, volume 7 (1975):

Presently three full time and a number of part time researchers are working on the project. SER has opened up a Washington, D.C., based office at 224 East Capitol St., N.E., in order to maintain closer touch with the Labor Department and the National Research Council.

Here we have commas after 'Washington" and "D.C." (and periods in "D.C.") but no hyphens.

From Adult and Continuing Education Today, volumes 7-8 (1977–1978):

The contract with the Washington, DC, based association is funded under Title III of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) administered by the Department's Employment and Training Administration (ETA).

Two commas, no periods, no hyphen.

From Videodisc/Teletext, volume 1 (1981):

The Washington (DC)-based Information Industry Association, representing the business organizations that package and sell information content through new technologies, announced and approved a new schedule of dues rates at its Annual Meeting in Boston, held in November, 1981.

This is an unusual option, with no commas and no periods, but a hyphen between the parenthetical "(DC)" and "based."

From CQ: The Radio Amateurs' Journal (1984):

The National Cable TV Association, a Washington, DC based association of cable television (CATV) operators, has requested that the FCC dismiss RM-4040.

This style has a comma after "Washington," no periods in "DC," and no hyphen anywhere.

From Nuclear Times, volume 3 (1984):

The commercial id one of three television ads created for the Committee for a Strong Peaceful America (formerly known as the Peace Media Project), by Peter Fenn and Associates, Inc., a Washington, D.C.–based advertising company.

Here we finally see someone using an en dash where most publishers put a hyphen (or nothing at all).


Assessment

Of the four options for "Denver Colorado based" that the poster suggests, only one receives any support from the eleven different punctuated forms of "Washington DC based" that I found in my examination of Google Books matches: "Denver, Colorado-based"—with a comma after "Denver" and a hyphen between "Colorado" and "based." This is, I believe, the most common form among the many matches I looked at. Other contenders that seem to me to be both simple and reasonable would translate as "Denver Colorado-based" (hyphen, no comma), and "Denver, Colorado–based" (en dash, comma).

Not one of the matches I found supports the equivalent of "Denver-Colorado-based" or "Denver-, Colorado-, based" or "Denver-based, Colorado-based."

Although the specific punctuation used to demarcate "Washington DC based" (and similar "[city state/district] based" phrases varies all over the map, suggesting that no unified guidance for handling constructions of this type exists, it is evident that the wording itself is by no means rare or unacceptable in many publications. At both the computer magazines that I used to work for and the business consultancy that I currently work for, the preferred form is "Washington, D.C.-based" (comma after city name, hyphen between district/state name and "based"), but other options are certainly defensible.

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  • Thank you for the usual scholarly assessment. Jan 7 at 15:17
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It is sometimes suggested to use an en dash in place of a hyphen when the first element of a compound modifier contains a space. See the example

North America–based company

from Peter Shor's answer to the question How do I hyphenate an open-form compound word with another that should be hyphenated?

I would thus recommend punctuating your examples as "Denver, Colorado–based" and "Mountain View, California–based company" (if you choose not to rephrase).

That said, a few caveats.

  1. Some people apparently feel that you must rephrase. (That's my understanding of Lambie's answer and comment.) To me, that seems like a challenge to your question rather than an answer in and of itself, but I guess I can emphasize this point a bit more to make sure that you're aware of this possible objection to any of these forms. I didn't write much about it in older versions of this answer because I haven't found any sources that say that it is unacceptable to use a name like "Denver, Colorado" as the first part of a compound adjective ending in -based.

  2. I'm not sure exactly what the history of using the en dash this way is, or how widely this usage is accepted or recognized. In a discussion from 2014 about the Wikipedia style guide, Tony writes ("Reasons for my oppose (proposed change 2)") that

    Using an en dash with exactly the same meaning as a hyphen, but in special contexts, is almost exclusively a US invention – and a recent one at that. It first turned up as an option in CMOS12 (1969), where the examples (at 5.91) are all with prefixes ("post–Civil War period") or have two more or less equal elements combined ("New York–London flight"). There's no mention of suffixes, or examples of such a use, though prefixes are specifically mentioned in Table 6.1, with examples there and at 5.91.

    [...] Only with CMOS16 (2010, current edition) do we get two suffix examples (at 6.80). The first three examples in that section: "the post–World War II years" "Chuck Berry–style lyrics" and "country music–influenced". [CMOS introduces these by saying] "it should be used sparingly, and only when a more elegant solution is unavailable"

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    No, this is not right for the question asked. The question was specifically about a city in a state. Not "an open-form compound with another that should be hyphenated." . Denver,Colorado-based in 100% wrong. You do either the city or the state in that specific case, or write: based in Denver,Colorado. Neither Denver or Colorado are compounds or should be hyphenated. Peter Shor's answer is irrelevant here.
    – Lambie
    Sep 17, 2018 at 20:11
  • I suggest which dash is chosen will always be wholly irrelevant. This or that wording does or does not require a hyphen. How could what you consider a hyphen to be matter at all? Jan 8, 2023 at 22:09
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A short, clear answer:

No, "Denver, Colorado-based company" is not used in writing in English about U.S. cities and states. What is used is: Denver-based company or Colorado-based company

For city and state, the standard practice is:

a or the company based in Denver, Colorado

No other standard way of writing this exists.

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  • Lambie, that would be broadly true in theory but in fact two things apply: "a or the company based in Denver, Colorado" is one of many possibilities. Whether or not any "standard way" exists is relevant how, exactly? Switching to your wholly different format might well produce a better answer but how is that relevant? Was the Question "what's a better/the best way to rephrase…" or not? Sep 20, 2018 at 0:20
  • None of the four forms listed under the question work. Period, end of story. And, there is no "compound adjective" in the question. And the last paragraph in your answer makes no sense at all. And "Denver, Colorado-based X" is not used.
    – Lambie
    Sep 20, 2018 at 14:47
  • Of course they don't; no less than "Period, end of story." Nov 3, 2018 at 22:38
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    The short answer is that there are other Denvers in the U.S. And there is New York in Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and New Mexico. And the French often will write (in annual reports or contracts) the town name without the state and then USA after that. So you get: Johnston, USA How about them apples? And I daresay that Americans might say Paris, France when there is some doubt: we have a lot of Parises in the U.S. Take a look: placesnamed.com/p/a/paris.asp But I doubt that an American businessman in London, would say Paris, France. It all depends on context (who is speaking to whom).
    – Lambie
    Nov 16, 2018 at 21:33
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    @Lambie There are at least three villages called "New York" in England. However if I tell someone I'm going to New York on holiday or business, I would not feel a need to explain that it was the one in America I was going to. There are also several Hollywoods and even a "Moscow" in Scotland. And a small neighbourhood close to where I live is called "California".
    – WS2
    Nov 22, 2018 at 10:33
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This page https://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/wrtps/index-eng.html?lang=eng&lettr=indx_catlog_h&page=9i1w-l02pVjM.html makes a fine case for saying Do not hyphenate proper nouns used as adjectives, as for intance a New York State chartered bank but then how should we distinguish between a charterer bank which happens to be located in New York State and one located anywhere but chartered by NYS?

How are locations such as those not postal addresses; like lists or headlines exempt from normal rules?

If your options are as posted then Denver, Colorado-based. Since you're here, is it clear that both Denver-based or Colorado-based should work?

From the point of view of the sentence, there’s no difference except ease of use between a Colorado-based company and a Denver City & County Building, City Hall, 1437 Bannock Street, Denver, CO 80202, USA-based mouthful. It’s just that one is simple and the other awkward.

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  • You do not address the issue, which is: Denver-based company; Colorado-based company or, for both, a company based in Denver, Colorado
    – Lambie
    Sep 20, 2018 at 14:49
  • Please be more realistic. Of course "a company based in Denver, Colorado" is correct but don't you think it avoids the Question, instead of Answering? If you think there's anything unclear or unusual about postal addresses in general or "Denver, Colorado-based…" in particular please explain the problem. Sep 24, 2018 at 18:36
  • No one would write: a Denver,Colorado-based company in any decently written text.
    – Lambie
    Sep 24, 2018 at 18:41
  • Sorry, Lambie, if that's outside your know-how. My experience is limited to nearly 20 years writing and editing more magazines and newspapers than I remember… dozens, anyway. Anyone who knew what he was doing clearly would write "a Denver, Colorado-based (anything)…"and anyone who couldn't comprehend that would surely be either a special case, or in a small minority. Sep 24, 2018 at 18:54
  • I'm also curious about situations in which the city is ambiguous and providing the state is a means of clarifying, e.g. "a Portland, Oregon- and Portland, Maine-based company." Jan 6, 2023 at 17:57
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Hyphens in a location modifier expression with a noun and past participle.

Generally, you need the hyphen only if the two or more words are functioning together as an adjective before the noun they’re describing.

When you connect words with the hyphen, you make it clear to readers that the words work together as a single unit of meaning.

For locational compound adjectives,

If the absence of a hyphen is NOT causing confusion then it is not a good compound location modifier.

A greater Toronto-based company. (confusion: Greater Toronto or Greater Company?).

So.

A Greater-Toronto-based company.

A green city-based company. (confusion: Is the company green or the city?).

So.

A green-city-based company.

But combining more than one location with hyphens does not make the compound modifier function like a single meaning. We can add more modifiers before a location, but can’t add more locations before it and combine it with hyphens to make it a single unit of meaning. Though one exception is in the public transport system, where we may connect two locations like this "A London-Delhi flight".

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  • Hello, LEW. I'd argue that [Denver, Colorado] has a single meaning; [that Denver that is found in Colorado]. The state name is defining, identifying. // These things have exceptions. The musical is << New York, New York >>, and this is the way the [city + state] is often designated. Being perhaps a compound, at least a strong collocation, influences the way attributive usage is styled. The Las Vegas hotel and casino is represented as << New York New York >> and << New York-New York >> even in their own ads. Nov 26, 2022 at 15:30
  • Thank you for your interesting argument. You are right. But here I am trying to answer "How does one properly hyphenate compound adjectives that are locations?" So we have to show the use of hyphenated words as adjective followed by a noun or a verb in past participle form and then a noun. Nov 26, 2022 at 18:02
  • The behaviour (specifically, hyphenation patterns) of 'compound adjectives that are locations' should really read the behaviour of 'compound adjectives that include two-component locations' (eg [Denver]/[Colorado]/[based], punctuation suppressed). This can't be deduced from the usual rules of thumb. Nov 26, 2022 at 19:23
  • You said, 1) (“The behaviour (specifically, hyphenation patterns) of 'compound adjectives that are locations”) (“can't be deduced from the usual rules of thumb.“) 2) And (It “should really read the behaviour of 'compound adjectives that include two-component locations'”) means 1) The hyphenation patterns can't be applied to such location-based (“ 'compound adjectives that include two-component locations' (eg [Denver]/[Colorado]/[based], 2) And the rule of thumb is what I mentioned above in my answer. 3) and your point 2) — means as single. Nov 27, 2022 at 2:39
  • I gave my suggestion under the question; I believe it's clear. But I didn't offer it as an 'answer' as I couldn't find supporting evidence that it's a usually used format. Note that OP requests supporting evidence, quite in line with ELU advice. Nov 27, 2022 at 18:00
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To be honest it doesn't matter much. In day to day usage of English, nobody really cares about it. If you want to mean "Denver-Colorado-based Company" just use instead "It's a company based in Denver, Colorado" to avoid confusion for the reader while writing.

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    Fair enough, but in day-to-day usage, I care about it. Sep 13, 2018 at 19:39
  • If you'll notice the answer is given. Sep 13, 2018 at 19:41
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    Do you have any sources? Sep 14, 2018 at 15:09

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