New Questions and Answers

Q. I have a situation in which I am writing about the East China Sea and the South China Sea. When I refer to them separately, I of course capitalize each word (e.g., “East China Sea and South China Sea”). My question is whether I ought to capitalize the s in sea when I refer to them together: is it “East and South China Seas” or “East and South China seas”?

A. We prefer to cap Seas in this situation, although other stylebooks may lowercase.

Q. Hello. I can’t find a clear answer to the question of how to form the possessive of an acronym, especially a plural one. For example, I see the use of an apostrophe without a following s used often (CBS’ programming). I think an s is appropriate in any case, including when the acronym itself is plural. Is this correct?

A. Chicago style treats acronyms like other words, adding an apostrophe and an s: CBS’s audience. Although a plural possessive acronym can be awkward, the apostrophe alone serves: the PDFs’ suitability. Please see CMOS 7.16.

Q. Hello—My husband and I are arguing as to my use of periods at the end of a sentence when “trailing off.” He is unfamiliar with my use of two periods, which I believe is correct if my sentence actually ends there, rather than continuing. Is he (god forbid) right?? Example: He detailed all of the Nordic sports equipment he knew: skis, poles, ski boots, snow shoes.. Or must there be three periods?

A. I’m afraid there’s no softening this blow: you are wrong. (And we try not to use the w word.) Seriously, have you ever seen two periods in a published book or magazine? No. It’s always at least three. To learn more, please read CMOS 13.48–56 on ellipses.

Q. I’ll often hear people say “me and Kathy,” not “Kathy and me.” Shouldn’t me come after the person’s name? “Kathy and me,” not “me and Kathy”?

A. Yes. When me is used in a compound object, it normally comes after the name(s): The message was sent to Kathy and me. There are times when it might be fine to put me first, however, such as when I am the primary object and other people are not equally emphasized: The threat was directed at me and everyone I’d been in contact with since that day. If you’re talking about a compound subject (as opposed to object), the correct phrase is “Kathy and I”: Kathy and I told them. If me is used as a subject, it doesn’t really matter which way you decide to be wrong.

Q. In your January Q&A, in your response to the question about under commitment and over commitment, you wrote that “it would be best to either close up both or hyphenate both.” I’m trying to eliminate using the word up where it’s unnecessary. It seems to me the vast majority of both up and down uses following verbs are unnecessary. Do you think up is needed in your response?

A. You are right that there’s no need to “close up a deal” or “close up a gate,” but when we bring two words together without a hyphen, we do not call this “closing the words.” So up is appropriate here.

Q. Hello! I’m alphabetizing a word-by-word bibliography and have come across these names: Rosenthal, Rosen-Zvi. Which should come first? Chicago seems to be silent as to how the hyphen should be considered. Is there a rule I should follow in this case?

A. Hyphens are ignored in word-by-word alphabetizing, so Rosenthal is first. Please see CMOS 16.60 and 16.61.

Q. Tense is confusing me, and it’s probably because I’m overanalyzing everything. Please help! Aren’t the two verb tenses saying the same thing? And if so, is paragraph consistency the deciding factor on which tense to use? “The early work focused/focuses on . . .” “Once the cards are / have been put away . . .” “I hope this gives / will give you courage . . .” “As we discuss/discussed in the previous paragraph . . .”

A. Yes, they say the same thing. English is flexible that way. There are subtle differences in tenses that sometimes make one choice better than the other, but this is usually quite obvious and shouldn’t require a lot of analysis. Local consistency usually reads more smoothly.

Q. Hello, I would really appreciate it if you could please explain the difference between 14.32 (Citations plus commentary) and 14.34 (Substantive notes). They appear to address the same issue, but 14.32 says the source should come before the substantive notes, and 14.34 says it should come afterward, following usage in 14.33. I’m finding this confusing.

A. The two sections treat different situations. The position of a citation makes it clear whether that source is in support of something you wrote in the text (in which case the citation should be the first thing in the note, per 14.32, and your extra comments should follow the citation), or whether the source is in support of something you wrote in the note (in which case the citation should follow the comment that it supports, per 14.34). In short, the citation should follow closely whatever statement it is meant to support.

Q. I’m editing a bibliography on children’s books, and I need to distinguish between authors and illustrators. While some books make this easy and identify the illustrator on the covers, other books don’t make this distinction until the title page or the copyright page. My question is whether it’s acceptable to use the information on these subsequent pages to distinguish authors from illustrators or if I should go strictly by the cover page and list both names in the author position if the cover doesn’t distinguish between the two.

A. It’s usual to list authors and editors (translators, illustrators, etc.) according to the title page of a book rather than the cover. Even when author and illustrator are given equal typographic treatment, the author’s name almost always comes first, without qualification, and as a rule the illustrator is explicitly identified as such. Please see CMOS 14.72, 14.76, and 14.88.

Q. Let’s say you have a phrasal adjective that includes an open or hyphenated compound, the word and, and an attributive noun, such as “sterling silver and diamond.” When placing this phrasal adjective before a noun (such as brooch), how would you use en dashes or hyphens? Would it be “sterling-silver–and-diamond brooch” or “sterling silver–and-diamond brooch” or something else? I would like to do “brooch of sterling silver and diamonds,” but that won’t fly with the fashion editors where I work.

A. Use no punctuation if the meaning is clear without it, or use simple hyphens (sterling-silver-and-diamond brooch) if otherwise it might look like two items: sterling silver, and a diamond brooch. In a paragraph or catalog about brooches, you are probably safe without punctuation. Reordering the items might help. When you’re tempted to use one hyphen and one en dash or use two en dashes, you are almost certainly overthinking and about to produce something monstrous.

Q. On a brochure for high school students a quotation praises the info on a career-search website. The source is “High school student.” My coworker says the name of the student and his school must be identified. May quotations be manufactured for marketing material? Or must quotations be attributed to real people? I say student privacy is a concern.

A. Quotations may be manufactured for marketing material, as long as they are identified as fictional. You see this on TV when the small type says “Dramatization”—which means “We’re making this up.” You have probably also seen quotations attributed to speakers whose surnames were omitted (Sarah O., Springfield Community High), or where the small type said “Names have been changed for the sake of privacy.” An attorney who specializes in privacy issues can help. Putting “Fictional high school student” after your quotes would make your brochure look pretty lame.

January Q&A

Q. In a book manuscript how much of the citation/location information for an image should I put into the image caption, and how much should go in the bibliography? Do images even need bibliography entries?

A. Image sources do not traditionally appear in the bibliography. The permission letter from the source of the image will specify which information must appear in the credit, but it’s usually an editorial decision whether to put the source credit in the caption or collect all the credits into a single section of the book.

Q. What is your preference for expletives (as in CMOS 5.28)? I have been taught that “It’s important that you eat breakfast” should be changed by a vigilant editor to something else, like “You really should eat breakfast” or “Breakfast is an important meal of the day.” Are expletives acceptable or not preferred?

A. Expletive pronouns are popularly prohibited, but an editor would be overstepping to disallow one that is used idiomatically and unambiguously (as in your sentence). Rather like the passive voice, which is essential to good writing but is routinely excised by overzealous editors, expletives are sometimes the most efficient, clear, and even elegant way to express something.

Q. I edit math textbooks for American students, and although we have a copy of your fine manual in the office, I need help with a query from a writer. When a number is written in words, do you separate the values with a comma: e.g., four thousand three hundred and twenty-one; or, four thousand, three hundred, and twenty-one? Hope you can help.

A. Although CMOS is silent on spelling out such complex numbers, common sense dictates leaving out the commas, since with commas, one large number could be misread as three numbers: 4,000, 300, and 21. Please note that CMOS leaves out and as well: three hundred twenty-one.

Q. What is the proper way of writing in full the initialism OIC (which stands for Officer-In-Charge)?

A. Chicago style often lowercases where other style guides would use caps, so we would write it as officer in charge (OIC).

Q. Hello! I’m currently editing a paper that will be submitted to a journal and have come across a very odd endnote in which the client has cited a number of authors and publications within the same note. It is not a direct reference; rather these are all sources in which a general argument has been made. I am confused as to whether this is proper endnote style. I was thinking perhaps they should all be listed separately, then the in-text endnote number could be listed as 1–5, or 1,2,3,4,5. Or perhaps an endnote is unnecessary, given that this refers to a more general philosophical argument of which there are many proponents?

A. It’s normal to list many sources in a single note, whether as direct references or general source notes. For an introduction to notes, please see CMOS chapter 14. For this matter in particular, please see CMOS 14.23 and 14.52.

Q. My understanding is that the word family is a noun or adjective. So if you use it in a sentence like “We ordered a family-sized pizza for the party,” is the hyphen used correctly in this instance despite the fact family ends in ly?

A. When CMOS 5.91 says “A two-word phrasal adjective that begins with an adverb ending in -ly is not hyphenated,” it’s referring to adverbs (not nouns or adjectives) where -ly is added to a root word: slyly, gladly. Words like ply, homily, and family happen to end in -ly, but the -ly is not an ending; it’s part of the word. And they aren’t adverbs. The section of the hyphenation table (CMOS 7.85) that you’re looking for is “noun + participle” (family + sized), where you will see that the hyphen is correct.

Q. If your first footnote is a specific source, then you have another source for the second footnote, then your third footnote is from the same source as footnote 1, do you just say “Ibid. from footnote 1”? Or do you rewrite it out?

A. Two things to know about ibid. when using it in a note: it must always refer to the note immediately before it; and the note it refers to must have only one citation in it. In note 3, for example, you can use ibid. only to refer to note 2, assuming that note 2 contains only one citation. To refer to note 1 (or to refer to a citation in note 2 when note 2 contains more than one citation), you must repeat the citation (although you can shorten it to just author and a short title). Please read about the use of ibid. at CMOS 14.29.

Q. Dear CMOS, I am wondering about how to handle competing rules. For example, numbers are written in numeral form when used as percentages. However, if that number is starting a sentence, it would be spelled out. For example: 27 percent of the students passed. Or: Twenty-seven percent of the students passed. Which would be advised? Thank you for any clarification you can provide.

A. Chicago recommends spelling out a number at the beginning of a sentence. It might help not to think in terms of “competing rules,” which leaves a person feeling helpless; instead try to think in terms of rules that have many exceptions. This is normal, both in CMOS and in life!

Q. I’m editing a manuscript that uses the terms over-commitment and under-commitment, sometimes in the same paragraph. The writers have hyphenated both terms. Does it look inconsistent to make the first term one word and the second term two words? Would it be less jarring to hyphenate both, as they have done? I’m fine with overcommitment as one word and under commitment as two, but I need some backing up so I can remove the unnecessary hyphens.

A. Chicago style closes up both terms. Under commitment looks odd; it makes under look like a preposition (as in under consideration). It would be best to either close up both or hyphenate both.

Q. Hello. Section 3.33 (“Crediting material obtained free of charge”) says “For material that the author has obtained free and without restrictions on its use, the credit line may use the word courtesy.” What exactly does “without restrictions on its use” mean? Does this mean that, if I’ve gotten permission to use a photo in a specific essay I’m writing, I can’t use “courtesy of” because the permission is only for that specific project?

A. Rights holders can put various restrictions on the use of items they give permission for: they can disallow cropping a photo or resizing or recoloring it or integrating it into a collage. They can prohibit a quotation from being used in an advertisement or from being altered in any way. They can prohibit resale, or repackaging, or use without full credit. If there are restrictions on your photo, they will be listed at the place you got it. Sometimes you have to click on a link to see the specific restrictions. If your photo is without restrictions and therefore does not require a credit, it’s polite to give credit anyway: “Courtesy of Terry Adams.”

Q. Hello, I am copyediting an article and wish to know what the plural form of “master’s degree” is. I believe it should be “masters’ degrees,” as this would be most logical, but I would appreciate your input. All of the online forums I follow have different opinions regarding this matter, and no dictionaries provide a plural form, so I would like to clear up the matter with you. Thank you very much.

A. The “master’s” part of the phrase stays singular: master’s degrees.

Q. The other day a colleague asked me if it’s permissible to use the expression “a momentum” in a sentence. I told him that momentum is a noncount noun and isn’t normally used with articles (a or the). In fact, after a cursory search, I could not find such a usage online. However, the sentence “we’ve built up such a momentum” sounds correct (or at least not wrong) to my ear. So I later e-mailed him to say that it’s correct to use momentum without an article, but it isn’t wrong to use an article. Am I being wishy-washy?

A. My own cursory search shows that “a momentum” is correct in many contexts. So yes, you were wishy-washy—but wishy-washy is better than dogmatic when you’re wrong.