New Questions and Answers

Q. Is it grammatically correct to say that “a nation or a society built a barrier or a wall”? Is it implied that we are talking about the citizens doing the building?

A. Yes and yes. The grammar is fine, and in English it’s normal to say or write expressions that are not meant to be taken literally. We sit on a jury. We stand on a principle. The United States sent a rocket to the moon. The Chinese built the Great Wall. (And incidentally, grammar isn’t the issue. “Its hairline breathed in desks” has perfect grammar, as does your sentence. The question is one of idiom rather than grammar.)

Q. Dear Sir or Madam: At 2.66 you say “To point out repetition.” And at 2.67 you talk about “inadvertent repetition.” I want to know what the repetition is like. In Japan, we don’t usually talk about repetition as a problem of publishing.

A. In English, repetition is sometimes useful for emphasis, but it can become a problem when a sentence or passage is repeated accidentally, when a point or argument is made more often than necessary, or when a word or phrase is used so often that it becomes distracting or tiresome. In these cases, we advise editing.

Q. How does one punctuate dialogue in which one character interrupts another in the middle of a word? The writer whose work I’m editing has used a hyphen followed by an ellipsis, which looks awful to me: “I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an expe- . . .”

A. The conventional punctuation is a dash: “I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an expe—”

Q. I’ve read the sections on prefixes and on parentheses with other punctuation, and would be glad if you would weigh in on the following type of structure: (pre)defined or (pre-)defined; (sub)set or (sub-)set. I think it would be reasonable to rule that solid prefixes in parentheses remain solid, and hyphenated prefixes retain their hyphenation. I would generally explain such compact forms before proceeding to use them. Or, if they occur only occasionally, simply expand them. What do you think?

A. Chicago style closes up prefixes whenever possible, and we discourage constructions like (sub)set, which are at worst meaningless and at best ambiguous. “Set or subset” is clearer. Writers who distinguish “defined” from “predefined” should make sure the difference isn’t just of the “sliced/presliced bread” type.

Q. Hello! I’m a freelance editor, and I’m editing a manuscript with more than 300 then words (which the publisher wants left in), mainly used as coordinating conjunctions. Here is an example: He deflated then chuckled. I suggested this to the director: He deflated, then chuckled. Her response: “I don’t see two independent clauses in either of those, so I wouldn’t consider then to be used as a coordinating conjunction. I would also consider the comma to be optional.” Is it okay to leave out the comma when then joins a compound predicate? Am I overboard on this?

A. It sounds like this manuscript is a novel or creative nonfiction, and your director is afraid you will edit out its style or voice. Perhaps she fears, with reason, that technical correctness would ruin the piece of writing. She is confusing things, however, by trying to justify the constructions grammatically instead of simply saying “This is the style we want; don’t mess with it.” It’s conventional to put either a comma or and before then when it’s used as an adverb (He deflated, then chuckled; he deflated and then chuckled), but rather than argue over grammar, it would be better to simply confirm that the more casual style is needed, regardless of technical correctness. There are various kinds of writing where cleaving to the CMOS rules would suck out all the life and character. There’s no shame in avoiding that.

Q. The “Life Style” section of a newspaper is referred to in dialogue. The dialogue is in double quotations. Should the name of the newspaper section also have a set of double quotation marks? I searched for an answer or a reliable example and could find none.

A. Chicago style leaves the titles of newspaper sections unquoted, which solves your problem. But in general, use single quotes for a quote within a quote. CMOS 13.28, 14.202, and 14.205 have the examples you’re looking for.

Q. The use of historic with landmarks, buildings, and districts is common. I’m confused by this when the entity is not a site where something historically important occurred, but is rather just old. Examples: historic Grand Canyon village, historic landmark status, National Register of Historic Places.

A. A dictionary is a great place to check a word meaning. According to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, the word historic does sometimes mean “just old” (“dating from or preserved from a past time or culture <historic buildings> <historic artifacts>”).

Q. In the example at CMOS 13.51 (Ellipses with periods), why is it a period at the end instead of “. . . .”? It’s not the end of the sentence in the original quote, and the period seems to suggest there is nothing further in that sentence with the single period.

A. Although it might be logical to put an ellipsis at the end, that’s not the convention. Quotations are nearly always, by their very nature, excerpted from a longer sentence, paragraph, or document. There’s no need to indicate that with special punctuation. Please see CMOS 13.50 (When not to use ellipsis points): “Ellipsis points are normally not used (1) before the first word of a quotation, even if the beginning of the original sentence has been omitted; or (2) after the last word of a quotation, even if the end of the original sentence has been omitted, unless the sentence as quoted is deliberately incomplete.”

Q. My copyeditor has changed “as described below” to “as described following” and has changed “as noted above” to “as noted before.” Is my usage correct, or at least acceptable? I have never seen the usage the copyeditor has suggested. Is this usage becoming a trend, and what does CMOS think about it? Thank you.

A. Your usage is correct and acceptable; your editor’s changes are awkward and unidiomatic. Some overeager editors remove directions like above and below in the fear that once the text in question is typeset it might end up directly across on a facing page or at the top of a page overleaf, in which case the terms above and below will not be literally true. If your pointers refer to illustrations (whose positioning is beyond your control), such precautions are reasonable. Otherwise, it’s silly to think that readers don’t understand that above means “before” and below means “after.” One way to negotiate this might be to consider whether phrases like “as described below” or “as noted above” are truly needed. They suggest a writer who doesn’t trust his readers to keep reading or remember what they’ve read.

Q. Hello style gurus—I’m editing a historical monograph. The author and I are trying to figure out if he should bracket the first letter of quotations if he changes capitalization. For example, “[T]he judge said” versus “the judge said.” I’ve looked at Chicago 13.16, but we’re not sure if that applies in a historical monograph. How can you tell if it’s obligatory or not? Thanks so much!

A. The brackets are obligatory only if the capitalization is part of the subject under discussion, which is rare outside of legal or textual criticism documents. Please read further at CMOS 13.13–16.

Q. I have seen some texts using the pronoun her to refer to a business: “Apple’s profit was high due to her impressive product designs.” I would like to learn when I should use the feminine pronoun and when I should avoid it.

A. Use the feminine pronoun when referring to a female person or animal. Avoid using it to refer to a business, a ship, or any nonliving entity—especially in the presence of a female person.

October Q&A

Q. How does Chicago recommend citing a URL that is only accessible via a paywall? I’ve noticed the practice of including a parenthetical statement “(subscription required),” but I haven’t seen Chicago address this.

A. You can find examples of citations of such materials at CMOS 14.271. Although our examples don’t include information about subscription, add it if you think it will be helpful to your readers. Beware, however, that noting it in one case somewhat implies that all sources have been checked for accessibility. That might oblige you to recheck all the sources.

Q. I work at a major children’s book publisher and have recently noticed a trend in creating books without any blanks at the end of the book. I would like to know if there is a rule on how many back-of-book blank pages are permissible in standard works of fiction (young-adult and middle-grade novels). At various adult publishers, I was taught that up to six pages is acceptable and that having at least a couple of blanks is actually preferable in order to allow for potential changes and additions during pass stages. But I can’t seem to find anything online or in CMS to support that. Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on this.

A. In conventional offset printing, large sheets of paper are folded into “signatures” of usually 16 or 32 pages (sometimes 8, or even 48) that are bound together and trimmed to make a book. For this reason, books have a page count that is a multiple of at least 8, and usually 16. Children’s picture books have long been paged at 24, 32, 48, or 64 pages. Middle-grade books page out at larger multiples. Having blank pages in a book isn’t a goal; it is simply unavoidable if the text and illustrations can’t fill all the available space. And since it’s expensive to tear out extra pages by hand, publishers turn a blind eye to the blanks. Digital printing doesn’t involve these large sheets of paper, so if you are seeing a lot of self-published or print-on-demand books, they probably won’t have any leftover pages.

Q. I am having a disagreement over the placement of a word in a sentence: “The estimated cost is 1% higher than the original estimated cost.” I think the word original is acting as an adverb and therefore should be replaced with the word originally, whereas a colleague suggests that original ought to act as an adjective describing cost. What’s your opinion?

A. If you use original, it’s an adjective modifying cost; if you use originally, it’s an adverb modifying estimated. They are both good usages, and the two wordings mean almost exactly the same thing.

Q. This problem came up when copyediting a journal: on a page that is occupied by a broadside image and has a single footnote (to the caption of the image), should the footnote be oriented the same as the image and caption (i.e., 90 degrees from normal), or should it stay as regular?

A. It’s not usual to footnote a caption rather than simply run the note into the caption with “Note:” in front of it, so you won’t find a rule for this in CMOS. But to compound the oddity by having two strings of text at right angles to each other is probably not a good idea. It’s almost always best, if possible, to set all the type on a page in such a way that it can be read continuously without turning the book.

Q. I often have to edit sentences with dangling modifiersfor example, “As a valued supporter, I am pleased to invite you . . .” My go-to improvement is to add you into the sentence: “As you are a valued supporter, I am pleased to invite you . . .” That is, until today, I got back feedback from a higher-up that said it had to be changed, because “you can’t change the subject of the sentence from you to I.” Now I’m really confused! Is that a legitimate critique? Should I just rework the entire sentence? Thanks!

A. Although the higher-up botched the grammar critique (you didn’t change the subject of the sentence; it was always I), it’s clear that your editing was rejected, so yes, you need to try again. For instance, you could move the offending phrase elsewhere (“I am happy to invite you, a valued supporter, . . .”) or make it declarative (“You are a valued supporter, and I am happy to invite you . . .”). If your higher-up just can’t part with the opening phrase, explain that you would be happy to reword but can’t think of a more efficient way to eliminate the dangling modifier. Using the term “dangling modifier” is often enough to frighten someone who doesn’t know grammar into complying.

Q. Is it grammatically correct to start a sentence with the word because?

A. Yes, it’s correct. It’s correct in formal prose when because is the beginning of a complete sentence, e.g.,

Because of the wind, it felt colder.

Because I was late, they towed my car.

Sticklers object to the use of because because it sometimes introduces a sentence fragment, and they think that sentence fragments are not allowed in writing. But they are wrong—sentence fragments are found in the very best of classic English prose. Because they work.

Q. Are there any permitted qualifications of the word unique?

A. Yes, certainly. The Oxford Dictionaries Online has posted a terrific piece about the misperception that unique can never be qualified (scroll about halfway down for the part specifically about unique).

Q. How do I in-text cite a quote from an organization’s website?

A. It’s best not to be too detailed or technical when citing in the text. Instead write something like ““According to a post on the Hyde Park Herald website on August 14, 2012, . . .” If it’s important, you can put the URL in parentheses, but if the URL is a yard long, it’s better to abbreviate to a reasonable root and let readers navigate for themselves: “According to a post on the Hyde Park Herald website ( on August 14, 2012, . . .”

Q. Is this sentence correct, and if not, why? Because it is seriously injured, the dog may die.

A. The sentence is correct. Strict editors might say that it is not correct because the pronoun it comes before the noun that it refers to (dog), but they would have trouble finding such a rule in any authoritative grammar book. If someone has objected to your sentence, it is probably because they are thinking of the rule that main-clause pronouns can’t refer forward to subordinate clauses yet to come (“It died, because the dog was seriously injured”). It’s fine for subordinate-clause pronouns to refer forward to main-clause antecedents yet to come.

Q. Dear Chicago, What is your stance on myriad versus a myriad of? Myriad thanks.

A. CMOS is silent on the issue, but Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary (our go-to resource) has this to say, s.v. myriad: “Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective. As the entries here show, however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.”

Q. Would one say, “He was a close friend of Gabriel’s” or “He was a close friend of Gabriel”? Is there a rule governing this?

A. There is! CMOS 5.47 calls your first construction a double possessive. Both forms are correct, but one or the other usually sounds more natural. “A friend of Gabriel’s” is the more common idiom.

Q. We hired an editor to edit our book (a novel), but several things just seem wrong. Here’s the quote:

“I see you got the water running.” Steve looked from the water canal to the disheveled man before him. “But what in God’s name happened to you?”

She wants to change it to

“I see you got the water running,” Steve looked from the water canal to the disheveled man before him, “but what in God’s name happened to you?”

Which is correct?

A. The first version is correct; the second one creates a run-on sentence. (I hope you got a good deal on that editor.)