Q. I’m a technical editor at an architectural and engineering firm and am working with a project manager (an architect) on a long document with 100+ tables. He insists on putting the table title below the table (below the table notes, which he wants to enclose in a box). He says he doesn’t like how the title above the table looks. CMOS 3.54 refers to “the title, which appears above the table,” but doesn’t give the reason for the placement. I have told the project manager that the overwhelming convention is to put the title above the table, have cited published guidance (e.g., CMOS) to put it above, and have told him that the likely reason is that tables are most often read from top to bottom, but he won’t budge. What is the reason CMOS recommends putting the table title above the table? Maybe he would consider your rationale.
A. Titles of tables are put at the top for the same reason chapter titles and subheadings precede their content: to announce what’s coming. What’s more, the column heads of a table often make sense only when combined with information that’s provided in the title, such as “in dollars per year” or “in miles per gallon.” Hiding that information at the bottom of the table might necessitate adding it to each column head, where space is limited. While there may be instances where a table title at the bottom works just fine (especially if the graphic design emphasizes the title), in general it’s more helpful at the top.
Q. Does The Chicago Manual of Style include guidelines regarding the maximum number of lines in a paragraph?
A. Nope. Some teachers assign an exact number of sentences per paragraph (or a minimum and maximum) as a way to help students think about organizing their work, but as writers become more experienced, they learn how to use a variety of sentence and paragraph lengths effectively.
Q. When would you use brackets instead of sic to correct a quotation? For example, if the original quote was “Increased cost are bad,” would you write “Increased cost[s] are bad” or “Increased cost [sic] are bad”? If it was a spoken quote (as opposed to written), would you just silently correct it?
A. The best use of sic (Latin for “thus” or “so”) after an error in a quotation of speech or text is when the passage is under scrutiny for a scholarly purpose and it’s important to point out a particular flaw or problem in the original because it’s relevant to the discussion. For example, if your original had said “Decreased costs are bad,” when it seems clear that the opposite was intended, sic would come in handy, followed by an explanation of why you suspect it’s an error. In this case, it would be dangerous to simply correct it (silently or transparently) unless you were able to consult with the writer, because the meaning is drastically changed.
Outside academe sic may be viewed as impolite. Louis Menand called it a “damning interpolation, combining ordinary, garden-variety contempt with pedantic condescension.” Resist using sic to flag an innocuous typo in a quotation (“Ha—look at this error I caught!”). Sic can also flag something that looks wrong but isn’t, and thus it may be used to sneer at readers (“Although this may look ungrammatical to those of you who don’t know any better, it’s actually correct”).
Making a correction in square brackets (cost[s]) is somewhat less aggressive than deploying a sic. A rule of thumb is to silently correct typos like the one you quote unless your judgment tells you either to be transparent or not to meddle.
Q. Throughout CMOS, as well as in Merriam-Webster, I see that some guidelines or spellings apply to “formal” writing and others to “informal” writing. How do you define formal and informal writing?
A. A writer’s choices determine whether a document is formal or informal. The use of slang, abbreviations, nonstandard grammar, lots of exclamation points, and a chatty tone are marks of informality. Passive verbs, big words, antiquated expressions, and correct or even stilted grammar signal formality. Most of us are comfortable somewhere in between. Some examples:
- Usually formal: dissertations, grant proposals, term papers, legal documents, job applications, financial reports, wedding invitations
- Usually informal: texts, grocery lists, personal letters and emails, personal blog posts
- Formal or informal: books, newspaper articles, professional blog posts, work emails and letters, advertisements
Q. My question is about where to place the footnote superscript in a bullet list, when the whole list is linked to a source. Do you put it before the colon that introduces the list, after the colon, or at the end of the list, after the full stop?
A. The note callout can come either after the colon or at the end of the list.
Q. How many spaces should there be between the end of a paragraph and a subheading? How many spaces after the subheading and the start of the new paragraph?
A. Chicago paper-writing style is covered in Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Comprehensive tip sheets for setting up a paper are available for free at the Turabian website. For subhead spacing, please see Turabian Tip Sheet 7, which advises two blank lines above a subhead and one blank line below.
Q. As a proofreader, I always mark a bad break when a line ends with an em dash and then a divided word:
This part of the street was relatively modest—boast-
ing a bank.
But I can’t find anything in CMOS that actually says this is necessary. Am I missing it? I also work for one publisher who considers it a bad break when an em dash appears after the portion of the word carried over:
This part of the street was relatively mod-
est—boasting a bank.
Is that rule any more or less valid than the preceding one?
A. Chicago’s guidelines for proofreading word division (2.112, 17th ed.) don’t prohibit such breaks, pointing out that the cure might be worse than the disease, resulting in a squished or loose line.
Q. In the manuscript I’m working on, a citation from an article published in Britain uses the word artefact in the title, but the spelling artifact is used throughout the manuscript (as we’re in North America). This citation is the only place where this spelling appears, but obviously I can’t change it. How do I reconcile this inconsistency? Is there some way of saying “yes, this citation is spelled correctly, but it’s an alternate spelling”?
A. Rejoice! This is not an inconsistency. It’s just accurate citing. It’s really no different than if in a book about Jane Austen an article were cited by someone named Jayne. (Although some copyeditors might want to petition Jayne to change her name, CMOS can’t support that strategy.)
Q. Dear CMOS editors: Some colleagues are having a debate over whether an author’s personal life story written in third person should be considered an autobiography or a biography. The manuscript’s classification will drive decisions about including documentation in the work. Your help with this issue will be greatly appreciated.
A. It sounds as though you’re planning to classify this work based on a single factor: that it’s written in the third person. But that’s probably not a strong enough criterion. The decision should be made on the basis of the content of the book, more than the style it’s written in. Classifying a manuscript in this way might do more harm than good if the classification (rather than the actual content) drives major decisions such as whether to include documentation. Try to find other criteria for deciding how to classify the book, and don’t disallow a bibliography just because you choose one or the other. If possible, consult a librarian for more help on classifying your project.
Q. Dear CMOS, in one of the articles I’m editing, the authors have a list of documents, where each document title is followed by a descriptive phrase. The title and phrase are separated by a colon. (1) Should the first word in the phrase be lowercase? The authors tend to capitalize it, but I think it should be lowercase (unless it’s a proper noun). (2) Would it be more appropriate to use an em dash instead of a colon? Here’s an example:
Guide: Step-by-step instructions to fill out
Best Practices: Frequently asked questions about best practices
Dedicated Observations: Information on dedicated background exposures
A. Although this isn’t a glossary, it behaves like one, so the guidelines for glossaries would probably serve you well. CMOS 2.23 (“Format for Glossaries and Lists of Abbreviations”) suggests a period, colon, or em dash after the entry. CMOS also suggests beginning the definition with a capital letter. (In a list of abbreviations, however, the definition should be uppercased or lowercased according to the meaning of the abbreviation.) Given that there is flexibility, accommodate the writers’ preference if you can.