New Questions and Answers

Q. I am editing a fiction story that has the word slash used as a separator of terms such as “toys slash books slash paint party” instead of the / mark. Is it acceptable to use the word rather than the mark itself?

A. The word is especially appropriate if a character is speaking or the text is meant to sound like personal narration. In running text, it would be a judgment call, depending on the kind of writing. The usage is strongly suggestive of someone speaking; it’s most appropriate in conversational contexts.

Q. Dear CMOS: In making bibliographic entries, I am not finding a way to call attention to multilingual publications. It would be of great value to my international audience to know that the text of the publication is translated into two, three, or four languages. I worry that it is not clear which language is used in the text, or that the entirety of the text is presented in multiple languages. How could this be accomplished?

A. You could write after the citation something like “Includes translations into French, Spanish, and German.”

Q. Concerning the author-date system of references, we use in-text citations and many times in-text citations end up in footnotes. Some authors will write “See Author1 2011, 123–34, and Author2 2000, and Author3 2004.” Others would write “See Author1 (2011, 123–34), and Author2 (2000), and Author3 (2004).” Which is correct?

A. Both styles are popular and conform to Chicago style guidelines. Please see CMOS 16, 15.24–30, for many examples. Semicolons work well in place of and.

Q. I keep hearing people say things like “She was a woman pilot” and “We have a woman speaker tonight.” In my mind, this is completely incorrect—shouldn’t it be female, not woman? Since when did woman become an adjective? Am I crazy?

A. You are merely perhaps a little behind the times. Woman has long been an accepted adjective. Please see CMOS 16, 5.226 (“Sex-Specific Labels as Adjectives”):

When gender is relevant, it’s acceptable to use the noun woman as a modifier {woman judge}. In recent decades, woman has been rapidly replacing lady in such constructions. The adjective female is also often used unobjectionably.

Q. Hi! I see a common mistake from writers I edit, but I’m not sure what to call it. An example sentence: “A key to understanding the movie was its being a musical.” Another: “One of the most interesting things about them is their endorsing a candidate.” A noun phrase made up of an “its + -ing + noun” formula. Certainly, these are easily rephrased, but is there a word for this besides simply poor writing style? Is there a grammatical rule I can refer these writers to? It’s pretty clearly colloquial for the region these writers are from, but I’d love to be able to give them a more accurate, professional response than “it just sounds bad.”

A. Although in some constructions (like yours) it is awkward, using the possessive (including pronouns) with a gerund is accepted grammar. Please see CMOS 16, 7.26, for a discussion and examples (e.g., “I won’t put up with him [or his] being denigrated”).

Q. In the following conversion in prose, should it be written “six feet (1.80 meters)” or “six feet (1.8 meters)”?

A. This is a matter of accuracy, rather than style. Six feet is 1.8288 meters. Rounded to the nearest tenth, that’s 1.8, but rounded to the nearest hundredth, it’s 1.83. So it would be inaccurate to write 1.80. Write 1.8 or 1.83 instead.

Q. I have read the sections on suspension points and em dashes, but I’m still a little confused about when to use them in some instances for a pause or break in the writer’s train of thought. If you use suspension points when the pause is a faltering and an em dash when there’s an interruption or a more abrupt break, how do you handle more “neutral” pauses in a sentence that are neither abrupt nor accompanied by confusion or insecurity? I would lean toward the em dash, but I have an AU that is ellipsis-happy, so it is making me question my judgement. Is an ellipsis okay in the instances below, or would an em dash fit the bill better? “I confidently thought I had his same sense of timing . . . or tie-ming.” “I could sense the potential for a fun, educational television show hosted by none other than . . . me.”

A. Such pauses as the ones you quote are fine with ellipses. It’s probably best to trust the writer unless you encounter something truly jarring or confusing. Of course, a distracting overuse of ellipses is something to point out to a writer, who might then be motivated to eliminate some.

Q. Who is responsible for putting in text corrections to a manuscript, the editor or the people in graphics? This is a real bone of contention in our office.

A. Typically, editors make corrections up to a certain point in the production process, after which they no longer have access to the files. At that point a graphic designer or typesetter must make the corrections, either as requested by an editor or with the editor’s knowledge and approval. Every publishing house should have a strict protocol for such matters. 

Q. CMOS 16, 14.98, gives a way to cite a book with two subtitles: by using a colon and then a semicolon between the three pieces of the title. What if the book I want to cite already has a colon printed between the first and second subtitles (no punctuation between title and first subtitle)? Is it okay to insert a colon between the title and first subtitle, then change the printed colon to a semicolon between the first and second subtitle?

A. When you say that there is no punctuation between the title and subtitle, it sounds as though you’re looking at a book cover or title page. Punctuation in a citation is not based on covers and title pages (“display type”), because there often isn’t any punctuation there. In display, the title is often set on its own line and given special treatment, like larger type or color, which conveys to the reader where the title stops and the subtitle begins.

Short answer: yes, in a citation you must insert punctuation to convey where the title ends and where the first subtitle ends. Check the Library of Congress information on the copyright page to confirm your impression. (The various subtitles will be separated by colons there.)

Q. The abbreviation for “revolutions per minute” is rpm as stipulated in section 10.52 (16th ed.). A document I’m editing contains a picture with the following label: “RPM Gauge.” I don’t like RPM being all capitals, but I’m not sure if rpm or Rpm is any better. What should I use?

A. Although rpm is Chicago style, RPM is well accepted. (Rpm less so.) It may be difficult or expensive or time-consuming to get changes made in an illustration, so unless there’s a problem caused by the departure from Chicago style, you should consider looking the other way. (An example of a “problem” would be if the text specifically discusses how to abbreviate the term and specifies the use of rpm, so that the inconsistency is confusing.)

Q. I recognize all writing formats today say there is to be one space between the period of a sentence and the first letter of the next sentence. I believe this fails to take into account studies that refer to visual cues that assist the reading process. So I start here with you to request this be fully discussed and reviewed with the hope that we may at minimum note that two spaces are acceptable between sentences. Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

A. I’m so sorry to report that that ship sailed long ago. You are a lone voice, crying in the wilderness. Too little, too late; a bolted horse, a dollar short. No metaphor can express how hopeless this is. Our best advice to you is to look for a silver lining in the single space.

March Q&A

Q. Is there a correct way to write a range of only two numbers in a complete sentence? For example, June 3–4, or June 3 and 4? Pages 75–76, or pages 75 and 76? The issue gets especially ugly when referring to multiple numbers. For example, “The event will take place Nov. 3 and 4, 8 and 9, 15 and 16, and 21 and 22.” Yuck. I say that for ease of reading, an en dash would be used. However, I know that according to CMOS, an en dash between two numbers implies “up to and including,” or “through.” With that in mind, should “and” be used, because no number comes between the two numbers that are cited? Or is that overthinking things? 

A. It’s not overthinking to be precise. “November 3–4” is a good way to describe a weekend-long event on November 3 and 4, but not a good way to describe a two-hour concert that takes place on November 3 and again on November 4. You have the right idea. Saying that something appears on pages 75–76 implies that there is a continuing discussion of it. If it appears on pages 75 and 76, it might be two separate, unrelated mentions.

Q. To avoid gender-specific language, is it acceptable to use “upperclass students” as an alternative to “upperclassmen”? I am seeing this more and more in academia, where I work. An alternative would be “upper-class students,” but that seems to refer to those from a higher social and economic class. What do you recommend?

A. Upper-level students, returning students, juniors and seniors (or sophomores, juniors, and seniors—whichever you mean), third- and fourth-years, third- and fourth-year students. There are plenty of ways around this, and all are less ambiguous than “upper-class.”

Q. How many times does it take for a foreign word to become familiar in a document? And does distance between occurrences matter? In reference to CMOS 7.49: “If a foreign word becomes familiar through repeated use throughout a work, it need be italicized only on its first occurrence. If it appears only rarely, however, italics may be retained.” This novel I’m working on has tons of foreign words in the dialogue that vary all over the place in frequency.

A. It’s not wise to quantify these things. You must use your judgment. Each word is a separate case. After all, non-English words that have an English cognate (activisme; simpatico; Milch; abreviación) are easily learned, but others might be very difficult. If you’re spending a great deal of time making decisions, consider making all foreign words italic all the time, knowing that some readers may find this tiresome and others helpful. The writer and editor must decide the best course.

Q. I disagree with the following: The runner noted that, “This course is very difficult.” Better: The runner noted that “this course is very difficult.” Why the comma in the first example? Why uppercase the “T”? Do you agree with me?

A. Yes! Please see CMOS 13.14 for the related guidelines.

Q. Is a question mark called for in the following sentence? “I wonder when it will stop raining.” I believe that it is a statement and therefore a period is the required punctuation, but I see similar sentences with a question mark so often.

A. No question mark is needed, since “I wonder” is a statement, not a question.

Q. Titles of works should be italicized, but on social media sites (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) text cannot be formatted. In social posts, is it best to leave titles of works Roman? Or do you recommend another way to designate titles of works using only plain text?

A. You can use “quotation marks” or ALL CAPS, or write _Title_ or *Title*.

Q. The following parenthetical sentence was in the introduction relating to your 20th anniversary in the February Style Q&A: “Note that some styles have shifted slightly since then.” What is your view of not using the word that in cases similar to your sentence? The word that can be deleted without changing the meaning, or in my view, without making the meaning harder to understand. It can be deleted from almost every use when it follows a verb. Would you agree adding a comma after Note and then deleting that would be clear to the reader?

A. When there really is no chance of confusion, by all means leave out that. Otherwise, let it do its honest work. That is often needed to prevent reading the next noun as a direct object. For instance, “Note those styles” is a complete imperative sentence. A reader would reasonably believe styles to be the object of Note and not expect it to have a verb of its own—only to find that styles is the subject of the verb have shifted in the dependent clause. The reader stumbles. Newspapers notoriously leave out that, causing goofy misdirection:

“But the obtained records reveal the scope of visitor misbehavior is huge” (Matthew Brown, “Visitor Misbehavior Abounds at U.S. Parks,” Chicago Tribune, August 31, 2016, Kindle edition).

As for using a comma after Note, a colon would be better, and in fact is quite common in place of that (Note: Some styles have shifted). Note, of course, that the need for a comma or colon suggests that the omission of that would be problematic otherwise.

Q. It’s long-standing software jargon to “save to disk” or “save to file.” Recently I’m seeing “save to list,” “save to album,” and other “save to” constructions in user interfaces and other places where I would use “save in” or other prepositions. Where can I get advice on whether the “save to” construction is idiomatic outside my industry?

A. Jargon in one area often spreads to other areas. It would be difficult—if not impossible—to determine exactly when an expression becomes “appropriate.” You can compare the frequency of specific phrases in professionally published books (which for the most part tend to stick to “appropriate” language) at Google Ngram Viewer. There’s also a searchable database of TV and movie scripts.

Q. I am editing a series of essays (18th century to present) that have been translated from the French and, later in the series, from other languages. Naturally, word meanings have changed over time. Also, English words and French words, for example, might come from the same root but do not have the same meaning—even in the same century. The translator’s notes on language are copious. He has been numbering them as footnotes, but CMOS says they should be asterisks, not numbers. If there are more than three translator’s notes per page (a quick review shows 8 on some pages), the number of asterisks will be unwieldy. Please advise!

A. Use only one asterisk per page; subsequent translator’s notes should use other symbols, in the traditional sequence (* † ‡ §), doubling the symbols if there are more than four notes. Please see CMOS 14.20. There are several other ways to integrate translator’s notes into those of the original. Please see CMOS 14.46 for the other methods.

Q. Does half need a hyphen when modifying a verb? For example, “He half listened to her story” or “She half walked, half ran.”

A. No hyphen—half may be treated like other adverbs. He barely listened; he half listened. She quickly walked; she half walked.

Q. This question has probably been asked before, but at work we are updating the human resources manual and nobody seems to know the answer. Is the apostrophe necessary in “two weeks’ notice” and “three days’ sick leave”? We will really appreciate your advice.

A. Yes, it has been asked before! Luckily for you, we are the soul of patience. The apostrophe is necessary, since those phrases express a type of possessive. Please see CMOS 7.24 (Possessive with genitive). 

Q. Dear CMOS:

Your Q&A answers are like haiku. I cannot help but admire such clear, concise, compassionate responses. Nor can I resist sending fan mail where you must expect a question.

Fondly,
An Admirer

A. You are very kind;
your e-mail, a welcome balm.
We are happy now.