New Questions and Answers

Q. During the past few years, many people have developed the habit of beginning a sentence with the word so, typically when they are responding to a question. This includes politicians, talking heads on television, and others who one might think are “learned” individuals. My view is that the use of the initial so in a sentence is both unnecessary and annoying. Any thoughts? Thank you.

A. There have always been “throat-clearing” words. Even highly intelligent professional speakers need a little thinking room to organize thoughts before speaking. So is no worse than well or um. The trick is not to be annoyed.

Q. At the beginning of each interview in my book, I use an “epigraph” from the interviewee. My publisher, citing CMOS, tells me that the epigraph, which is not signed, cannot be centered. This makes the one or two-line epigraph look like a misprint. Can you tell me what is correct in these cases? The editor has never cited a specific CMOS reference, but just tells me “That’s the way it is.”

A. The position of an epigraph is normally decided by a graphic designer as part of a coherent design for the book as a whole. Depending on the design of the rest of your book, centered epigraphs might look amateurish. Your editor is probably referring to the design specifications, and he or she may be reluctant to ask a designer to change the specs. It’s fine to express your concern and ask whether the design can be tweaked. Centering is only one of many options.

Q. I would like to know more about the use of the modals can and may. Here in Brazil it is being taught that both can be used, as in “Can/May I erase the board?” Could you please distinguish both for me?

A. Traditionally, “Can I?” means “Am I able to?” whereas “May I?” means “Do I have permission to”?

Can I lift six times my weight? Can I get to the parking lot through this alley?

May I take your plate? May I go ahead of you in line?

This use of may is dying, however. We tend to hear it from grandparents when a child asks “Can I have some candy?” and the grandparent replies “May I!” Although it’s not rude to use can when you are asking permission, it is incorrect to use may when asking whether something is possible.

Q. I am editing a document in notes/bibliography style where the author has wordy footnotes rather than straight-up citations. For example: “There are a number of excellent biographies of Jane Austen and the outlines of her life story are nearly always rehearsed in articles on her work. Jane Doe, her friend, wrote the first authoritative biography. Joe Blogg’s Her Life Story is perhaps now the definitive. And John Doe’s short biography for the Penguin Lives Series has circulated widest.” And it goes on with several more. Since these sources are all in the bibliography, do I need to include all of the publishing info in the footnotes? We’re trying to keep them short.

A. You’re in luck: shortened note citations are actually preferred when there is a bibliography. Please see CMOS 14.24.

Q. Is it necessary to have commas before and after an appositive when referring to coaches? Example: We went to see Bengals coach Paul Brown to interview one of his players.

A. Coaches receive the same treatment as everyone else. Use commas with an appositive if the expression is not restrictive—that is, if it would make sense set off by parentheses:

We went to see Bengals coach Paul Brown.

We went to see the Bengals coach (Paul Brown).

We went to see the Bengals coach, Paul Brown.

See CMOS 5.21 and 6.22–24 for more on restriction and commas.

Q. Would you share a sample of proofreading marks on a manuscript page? I refer to figure 2.6 from the manual, but it does not explain where to position marks on the line and/or in the margins.

A. Certainly. Please see figure 2.5 for a marked-up manuscript (marks in the line) and figure 2.7 for marked proofs (marks in the margins).

Q. What punctuation is required for “including but not limited to”? I see many different opinions from many different sources.

A. No punctuation is required, but commas after including and to would work just fine; they may be helpful if the phrase introduces a long or complex list. Dashes would work as well.

Q. A book title is written in italics, as is the title of a musical album. Chapter names and songs are set between quotation marks. If I’m correct, the thinking behind this is that a song is usually part of an album or a play or some sort of larger work. However, it wasn’t that long ago that a song was a stand-alone work, released as sheet music or as a single on a 78 or 45 rpm record. LPs and the concept of an album came to prominence in the 1960s. So what do we do with “The Pineapple Rag,” which was never part of an album? It was released originally as sheet music and possibly as a player piano roll. Throughout most of music history, the song was the major work. Some songs, like “Money” on Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, are integral parts of the album, while Bach’s Minuet in G has nothing to do with any larger work. Doesn’t it make more sense to italicize song titles? This also eliminates all the awkward quotes and commas when listing the songs in an album or play. Thoughts?

A. Your viewpoint is valid. Songs can fall into more than one category and may reasonably be styled in different ways. There are similar issues with maps, which are sometimes a single page in an atlas and sometimes published as an independent pamphlet or work of art. Adapt the style to suit the document. If italics work better for your songs in a given context, by all means use italics.

Q. We are using quotes from community leaders who have supported our project over the years. Last year the name of the project changed from the Trinity Uptown Project to the Panther Island Project, and we are updating all materials to reflect that. One of the quotes from a community leader (who is now deceased) uses the term “Trinity Uptown.” What would be the proper way to amend that to show that the project is now called Panther Island while the original quote used the term Trinity Uptown?

A. You can use brackets in the quote to replace the words that are now wrong: Mayor Green said, “The [Panther Island] Project is terrific.” Or you can put an editor’s comment in square brackets: Mayor Green said, “The Trinity Uptown [now Panther Island] Project is terrific.” Or you can paraphrase: Mayor Green called the project “terrific.” You can also use the original quote as it is if it’s clear elsewhere that the name has changed.

Q. When a citation falls near the bottom of the page, and there is no room for the associated footnote, should that note be placed on the following page? Thanks!

A. Not exactly. Footnotes must at least begin on the same page as their text callout; they then may carry over and finish on the next page. An application like Microsoft Word takes care of this automatically: if there isn’t room for the note to begin on the same page, it will move the line of text with the callout to the next page. In published materials, typesetters do the same thing, only they “massage” the surrounding text so there aren’t any short pages as a result.

Q. A colleague has sent me your about-face from the 15th edition regarding punctuation following italicized words, and I am speechless. I’m afraid I’ll have to look for a new authority on style, because this decision is so vile, and makes text look so absolutely horrible that I refuse to follow the change. What’s next? Putting commas and periods outside quotation marks? You may as well go that route as well; it looks better than having a roman question mark or exclamation point after an italicized word. What’s wrong with you? Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? Absolutely irrational, horrible decision. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

A. We will give that some thought.

August Q&A

Q. Dear CMOS Editors, Although strict grammar would suggest that “if I had been you, I wouldn’t have done that” is correct, I feel that using “if I had been you” in this case instead of “if I were you” implies that the condition of my being you is impossible only in the past and may somehow have become more possible as time went on. Because it is not a changeable condition—I cannot be you, whether in the past or the present—I feel that “if I were you” is the right conditional to use in this example. I have not been able to find an authoritative explanation either way. What do you reckon?

A. This isn’t philosophy—it’s just grammar. “If I were you” puts the reader in the present. If you want to stage “if I were you” in the past, it becomes “if I had been you.”

Q. “The larger the parameter, the smaller the region.” This construction is just fine, but what’s the justification for implied rather than fully present verbs? Why don’t we get to imply parts of speech whenever we want to? And as an editor, am I wrong to delete the verbs when they are used? “The larger the parameter is, the smaller is the region”?

A. You are right to delete the verbs. Your first version is idiomatic English; the second is pedantic overkill. As for your whys and wherefores, I’m afraid you will need a linguist rather than a style guide to get the technical backstory. Let us know what you find out!

Q. How does one cite a periodical that is mislabeled by the original publisher? I have an issue of a trade journal labeled volume 24, but it should be volume 23. Thank you for your help.

A. Put the volume number in square brackets [23] to imply that it is being supplied for some reason by the writer. To be perfectly clear, you could write “vol. 23; mislabeled as vol. 24.”

Q. In a sentence like “the authors thank Natalie and Isabel for her editorial assistance,” is it grammatically correct to use the pronoun her and not their?

A. If the authors intend to thank both Natalie and Isabel for assistance, then their is the right choice. However, if the sentence means “The authors thank Natalie [for something other than assistance, but we aren’t saying what] and [we also thank] Isabel for her assistance,” then even if it is technically grammatical (debatable), it is nonetheless confusing. (Correct grammar does not mean everything’s OK. “Striped sentences wish green habits” is grammatical.) In short, your sentence is a disaster and must be rewritten for clarity.

Q. Is it equally acceptable to say “My friends and I went to the concert” and “I and my friends went to the concert”?

A. No; the second construction is popular but not yet considered proper.

Q. Is it correct to say, “The cost of the widget is 300 percent of its counterpart”? I’m wondering if this should be “The cost of the widget is 300 percent more than its counterpart.”

A. “Percent of” means something different from “percent more than.” It might be easier to understand if you use a different number: 50 percent of 100 people equals 50 people, whereas 50 percent more than 100 people equals 150 people. So although I can’t tell you the answer without knowing the cost of the widget and the cost of its counterpart, “300 percent of the cost” means three times the cost; “300 percent more than the cost” means the cost plus 300 percent of the cost (cost times 4). Since many people don’t know the difference, avoid those expressions and say exactly what you mean (e.g., “costs three times as much” or “costs $850 more than”).

Q. I’m a book publisher editing a memoir by a physician who served in the military, and most of the individuals described in the memoir are also military physicians. The first time our narrator mentions another military physician, we might say, “The commander of the base was Dr. Sherman Potter, a Navy captain.” Then, in subsequent references, we are using just “Potter.” These doctors called each other only by their last names in conversation, so continuing to say “Dr. Potter” in the text would feel overly formal and would not be parallel with the dialogue. However, it feels overly casual to immediately switch to “Potter” from “Dr. Sherman Potter.” Is it crazy and overly complicated to suggest that first references remain “Dr. Sherman Potter,” the second reference be to “Dr. Potter,” and the third and subsequent references be merely to “Potter”? I am, of course, in a huge hurry to solve this extraordinary important issue in my life and your rescue is greatly appreciated.

A. In a memoir, the writer is usually the best person to be in charge of what people are called. (Consistency in such a matter is something only an editor would come up with.) A person might call a young colleague “Jones” but an esteemed elderly mentor “Dr. Potter.” Likewise, the writer might not want to introduce every character by a full name on first mention. He might not even want to reveal that a person is a doctor on first mention. These are nuances that an editor must respect. Use your judgment to query anything in this regard that strikes you as out of whack. That should be enough. (And while you’re at it, better double-check whether Dr. Potter is actually an army colonel!)

Q. I need help with the placement of double, single, double quotes in a short quotation (it can’t be an extract, which would solve the problem nicely). Here’s the sentence: “This book uses Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of concrescence as ‘the name for the process in which the universe of many things acquires an individual unity in a determinate relegation of each item of the “many” to its subordination in the constitution of the novel “one.”’” I feel like that last bit can’t possibly be correct: it’s double quotes around the last word (one), followed by the single quote mark that closes the inner quote, followed by the double quote mark that closes the outer quote. You say . . . ?

A. Believe it or not, that’s right! However, instead of using a block quotation, it’s often possible to avoid quotation mark pileups by paraphrasing the framing quotation: Her book adopts Alfred North Whitehead’s definition of concrescence: “the name . . .”

Q. Would you consider creating a rule about the capitalization of wine varietals? In my dictionary Chablis is capitalized, cabernet sauvignon and merlot are lowercase but “often capitalized,” prosecco is lowercase, barbera is lowercase. I edit a lot of books containing wine names, including one book solely about wine varietals, and there does not appear to be an industry-specific source.

A. We appreciate your confusion. Although CMOS isn’t likely to take on the task of “wine casing,” William Safire once devised a reasonable system you might be able to use.

Q. I’m wondering how you would handle a possessive of a city-and-state combination: While we were able to recast the sentence, suppose we need to express “the streets of Anytown, New York” as compactly as possible. “Anytown, New York’s, streets” puts the possessive squarely on “New York” because of the necessary comma—and you couldn’t do the logical “Anytown, New York,’s streets” as if the commas were parentheses! Or do we just bite the bullet and have an even longer sentence?

A. Yes—please—bite the bullet.