December Q&A

Q. In 8.174 (17th ed.), you state that the title of a work should not be used in a sentence as though it’s interchangeable with the subject matter. I agree wholeheartedly, but I’m getting repeated resistance from a writer I work with. I’d love to have a succinct rationale to give her to reinforce my position (ideally one that doesn’t sound unprofessional and snarky). It comes up in situations where the writer needs a headline or email subject line and uses “Your Tips for Getting Ahead are here!” or the like. And then it becomes clear in the body text that follows that a document titled “Tips for Getting Ahead” is being offered.

A. It’s hard to argue with someone who doesn’t see the point, which is admittedly a bit subtle. But if you are able to edit your colleague, a professional, snarkless approach would be to style her heads so they work as real sentences: e.g., “Your Tips for Getting Ahead Are Here!” When this isn’t possible, don’t worry. In most cases, the head will convey the right meaning regardless. If you save your argument for when real confusion would result, your colleague might be better able to see what you mean.

Q. How do you feel about lastly, as in, “Lastly, a study of cancer patients . . .”?

A. CMOS 17 prefers last. Please see 5.250 (“Good Usage versus Common Usage”), under last; lastly.

Q. It’s up to You. I came across this title. The question is whether to capitalize up. My gut says do it, because it’s an idiom of sorts, and because the typical grammar rules about prepositions and title caps don’t quite seem to address this case.

A. Up in your phrase is actually an adverb, so under Chicago’s headline rules it would be capped. When you’re confused about a part of speech, a good dictionary is a terrific resource, because it provides example sentences for each part of speech. At Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged online under the word up, at adverb definition 5(b), you can see the example “put the problem . . . up to the states,” which is similar to your “it’s up to you.” The examples in the preposition definition of up are different (“up a tree”; “up river”).

Q. In the money examples in the hyphenation guide, I would not have allowed the last example, “a $50–$60 million loss.” Almost certainly “a $50 million to $60 million loss” was meant, but the construction reads “fifty dollars to sixty million dollars.”

A. Luckily, in most contexts misreading is unlikely in the way you suggest (“Yes, it was a bad year; I suffered a loss between fifty dollars and sixty million dollars”). In the rare instance where such an expression could cause confusion, a writer should expand the range.

Q. I would like to know whether hyphenated words should always fall on the same line of a sentence. Is it OK to have the prefix at the end of one line and the rest of the word on the next line?

A. In printed materials it’s rarely possible to avoid hyphenating words at the end of all lines. In almost any book, you will see hyphens peppering the edge of the right margin. When a word must be hyphenated at the end of a line, it’s best to divide it at a logical location, such as after a prefix. You can read about word division involving prefixes at CMOS 7.40 (17th ed.). More on word division is found at CMOS 7.36–47.

Q. I’ve always followed this advice in Chicago: “If, as occasionally happens, the Collegiate disagrees with the Third International, the Collegiate (or its online counterpart) should be followed, since it represents newer lexical research.” We subscribe to the online Unabridged (which also includes the Collegiate), and lately this advice no longer seems to apply consistently. Merriam-Webster seems to be updating entries in the Unabridged and leaving the Collegiate with the older version. For example, the Unabridged has life-span while the Collegiate has life span. Typically, the hyphenated version would be the more up to date.

A. It’s true—the lexicographers at M-W can’t be everywhere at once, which leaves discrepancies between their various versions. But the kinds of changes you’re talking about are minor. It’s not as though life span is now so grossly incorrect that using it would invite viral shaming on Twitter. We hyphenate a compound to make it easier to read or to prevent misreading. If you use common sense and keep a style sheet, you needn’t worry about whether you’re up to the minute with M-W.

Q. While CMOS states that a ship’s name should be set in italics, what if it is used as a part of the name of a larger body, such as the Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group? Would the ship’s name be italicized in that instance?

A. Although CMOS is silent on the subject, using all roman type in this situation seems similar to putting periodical titles in roman when they are part of the name of an organization, building, award, or so forth (Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Chicago Defender Charities). Please see CMOS 17, 8.172.

Q. When pluralizing surnames, are there instances when using an apostrophe could be considered appropriate? For example, “We’re going to dinner with the Laos” is potentially confusing. This sentence could easily be reworded (We’re going to dinner with the Lao family), but I’m wondering if Lao’s could be allowed in this context; that is, when pluralizing short, traditionally Asian surnames that could be misread when an s is added (e.g., the Gus, the Hans).

A. Although one could argue for this solution by citing the apostrophes that CMOS recommends for the plural of lowercase letters of the alphabet (“two a’s and three b’s”), using an apostrophe in surnames to indicate the plural is going to strike many readers as a flat-out mistake. You’re right that it’s easy to reword.

Q. In a footnote do the year and page number go at the beginning or at the end?

A. The page number usually goes at the end of a citation. The placement of the year depends on whether you’re using the notes-bibliography system or the author-date system. You can find a free guide to both systems at our website.

Q. I’m editing a transcript, and our department’s lead editor is giving me some trouble. We’re suffering over the word so. Under what circumstances can one put a comma after so? For example, in this transcript, a woman says: “So great answer.” Is so functioning conjunctively here, or can it be treated as an interjection? And what, if anything, does that mean for comma placement?

A. Is there a recording, or did someone actually hear the woman speak? To deduce the part of speech, you have to know the intonation and pacing. Was the speaker referring to a “so great answer” with no break between so and great? Or did she say “so, [pause] great answer!”? The first use is adverbial (so modifies great) and would not take a comma, whereas the second is a kind of conjunction (an introductory particle) after which a comma would be helpful in indicating a pause. An ellipsis or dash might be even better. But if you don’t have a recording, there’s no way to decide the punctuation, unless you can guess from the context.

Q. Our office compiles, edits, and publishes the laws and statutes for the state legislature. Some people in the office are averse to hyphenating phrasal adjectives, particularly ones that consist of open compounds, because they feel “these are terms recognized by everyone and are unnecessary to hyphenate. There is no confusion when reading ‘wild rice industry,’ ‘general fund appropriation,’ ‘high school student.’ These terms are instantly recognizable.” A bit presumptuous, no? A good editor helps the reader, especially when it comes to law and litigation. How does one decide whether a term is known to everyone in the world?

A. It’s not easy. You must send out a survey to everyone in the world and wait for them all to reply. Meanwhile, the rest of us will struggle along with common sense, CMOS 7.84 (17th ed.), and a good dictionary.