Q. Does CMOS prefer a slash or parentheses to denote an alternative? For example, “on/off” vs. “on (off).”
A. Parentheses and slashes can both denote alternatives, but the use of parentheses in that role is limited. For most alternatives, the slash is best. The form “on/off” means either “on” or “off.”
The form “on (off),” on the other hand, would tend to suggest (illogically) that “on” is equivalent to (rather than an alternative for) “off.” To fix that, you’d need to add an “or”: “on (or off).”
But parentheses can be useful for alternative word endings. For example, instead of “return your manuscript to the author or authors” or “author/authors,” a more concise form is “return your manuscript to the author(s).”
That works best with simple s or es plural endings, in which the parentheses show a letter or letters that would be added to the term. Anything more than that—e.g., “warranty(ies),” in which “ies” is an alternative to “y”—though useful in a pinch, can quickly start to become unclear.
Q. Should there be a space on either side of an ellipsis in the middle of a line when using the Unicode ellipsis rather than three spaced periods? Example: Should there be a … space … like this? I’ve read CMOS 13.50, which says that authors can use the ellipsis character in their manuscripts instead of spaced ellipses, “usually with a space on either side.” But several authors disagree with me as an editor. Most authors insist on no…spaces…like this. Several have them like this… with a space on the right side only, before the clause continues. Thank you for your help!
A. Any of the approaches you mention can be valid when used consistently. But when you’re using an ellipsis character (or unspaced periods, which are similar) rather than three spaced periods in a manuscript that’s otherwise in Chicago style, put a space on either side of the ellipsis except immediately before another mark of punctuation:
This ellipsis … is in the middle of a sentence.
This one is at the end. … Note the space after the period.
This ellipsis is preceded by a comma, … with similar spacing.
What do you mean? … More of the same.
But when punctuation follows …, close it up to the ellipsis.
Is that wise …? We think so.
Do this whether you’re using the ellipsis to stand in for an omission (as in quoted text) or to signal a faltering or hesitation (as in fictional narrative or dialogue). But note that in fiction, periods and commas aren’t typically used next to an ellipsis (see this recent Q&A for more details).
An editor following Chicago style would then replace each instance of “…” with “. . .”—making sure to include a nonbreaking space before and after the middle period and between the last period and any comma or other mark of punctuation (except for a parenthesis or quotation mark) that immediately follows the third period.
Usage outside Chicago varies, as you suggest. AP, for example, recommends unspaced periods used similarly to the examples above. BuzzFeed’s advice depends on whether the ellipsis indicates a pause or an omission. Whatever you end up doing, apply it consistently (and according to a consistent logic).
Q. Can an ellipsis be used instead of a period at the end of a complete sentence?
A. Yes, it can . . . But keep in mind that there are at least two ways to use an ellipsis. In the first of these, an ellipsis represents a lapse of some sort—for example, a faltering, a trailing off, or a pause. For that kind of ellipsis, use only three dots wherever the ellipsis occurs (as at the start of this answer).
But when the dots represent an omission within a quotation, retain a period at the end of a grammatically complete sentence. Put this period before the ellipsis, even if that’s not where the sentence ends in the original source: “Vanity and pride are different things. . . . Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice).
Q. In formal writing, it is always recommended not to use contractions. But what about the expression “what’s more”?
A. We wouldn’t say always. In writing that is both formal and technical, contractions are still generally discouraged (as you will find, for example, in the latest editions of Scientific Style and Format and the style manual of the American Medical Association). But in nontechnical contexts, any rule against using contractions works against writing that sounds natural and is therefore easy (or at least pleasant) to read. Chicago therefore doesn’t prohibit them. What’s more, the first edition (published in 1906, in the era of spats) included a few (and not only as examples demonstrating how an apostrophe is used). Here’s one: “Don’t stultify yourself and discredit the office by asking foolish questions on the proof” (p. 99). That advice might just as well apply to contractions: “Don’t stultify yourself by avoiding the apostrophe.” As for the phrase “what’s more,” if the apostrophe bothers you (or if it’s forbidden by your style guide), try “furthermore” instead.
Q. I was horrified to see that you endorsed using an apostrophe before the s to form plurals! “To aid comprehension, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s (compare ‘two as in llama’ with ‘two a’s in llama’)” (CMOS 7.15). I protest. An apostrophe conveys possession, or a contraction. It should never be used in this context. Please advise where this misbegotten rule came from.
A. The nice thing about using an apostrophe to help form a plural is that it does it so well; you’d never know that it was born under questionable circumstances, or that it doesn’t have a right to play that role. You’ll find it in Shakespeare: “By my life this is my Ladies hand: these bee her very C’s, her V’s, and her T’s, and thus makes shee her great P’s. It is in contempt of question her hand” (Twelfth Night, act 2, scene 5 [1st folio, 1623]; and note the absence of an apostrophe, and the plural ending, in the possessive “Ladies”). In its first eleven editions, CMOS advised writing “the three R’s,” after which it became “the three Rs.” But the intent of the rule has remained the same: use an apostrophe wherever it is needed to prevent a misreading. And as anyone who got A’s in chemistry (or knows their Agatha Christie) might tell you, sometimes an apostrophe can spell the difference between a letter grade and a poison.
Q. When a question introduces a list, should you use a question mark or a colon? Or both?
A. First, don’t use a question mark immediately followed by a colon, or vice versa (neither :? nor ?:); instead, use the stronger mark. Assuming a direct question, the question mark is usually stronger.
Which fruit would you be most likely to recognize by texture alone?
A signal like “the following” can be helpful in such cases: “Which of the following fruits . . .”
If you incorporate the list into a sentence, the question mark can follow the last item.
Which fruit would you be most likely to recognize by texture alone: bananas, apples, blueberries, cherries, or pineapples?
Especially for shorter sentences, a comma can be used instead of a colon to introduce the list.
Which fruit do you like best, bananas or pineapples?
Do you prefer apples or bananas or blueberries? [See CMOS 6.67.]
Q. I edited a travel book for children, and I would love to know your response to this comment from an Amazon reviewer: “U.S. is spelled US throughout the book; D.C. is also spelled without the accurate punctuation. That sort of inattention to accuracy is inexcusable.” The author has asked me to write a response to this for Amazon. This reviewer seems to think Chicago style is teaching kids bad punctuation habits. Thanks for your help.
A. “DC” (no periods) is the official postal abbreviation, in use since October 1963, when the US Post Office Department (now the US Postal Service) introduced its list of two-letter abbreviations for states and territories (and the District of Columbia). The Chicago Manual of Style now recommends these familiar two-letter forms over the traditional abbreviations. So we recommend not only “DC” rather than “D.C.” but also, for example, “IL” rather than “Ill.” Chicago’s preference for “US,” on the other hand, accords with established usage for other countries (the UK, the former USSR, the PRC) and for most other initialisms and acronyms that take full capitals (NASA, UN, DNA). It is true that many publications still favor the more traditional forms with periods, and those are not wrong. But it would be wrong to suggest that kids can’t learn to appreciate the details that make reading (and editing) so interesting.
Q. What’s the official CMOS stance on double question marks?? I see this a lot in blogs, online magazines, DIY news sites, etc.
A. We don’t have an official stance on double question marks. But to invoke the spirit of CMOS if not the letter, you might keep in mind that any kind of emphasis tends to lose its effectiveness if overdone. This is essentially our stance on exclamation points (see CMOS 6.71), advice that’s equally applicable to doubled question marks.
Q. Dear CMOS team—a book I am working on as an editor is called (disguised) Sandwich: Imagine the Recipe. Write It Down. Watch It Happen. Are the periods in the subtitle appropriate, or are commas preferred? The periods are driving me crazy, so it would be nice if there were a Chicago rule to say yea or nay.
A. The periods are certainly awkward when it comes to putting that title into a sentence. But for better or for worse, they’re part of the title’s personality, so it’s probably best to leave them as they are. If the title appears midsentence, omit the final period or change it to a comma, depending on the syntax. Try to think of the whole thing as a unit and just avert your eyes.
Q. For catalog copy, how would I write inches symbols with a period at the end of a sentence? (The client wants symbols rather than to spell out inches. That is nondebatable.)
5'' × 4''.
5'' × 4.''
The client says it’s the latter. I say NO WAY. I think the hash marks are not to be confused with an end-quote mark. Please!!! Please!!! Can someone help me out here?
A. Hang on! We’re coming! You are right: quotation marks are irrelevant. The inches symbol must be closed up to the number, which puts the period at the very end, after the entire expression: 4″ × 5″. Also, please note that the symbol for inches is the double prime (″), not double quotation marks (”) or straight quotation marks (") or (gasp!) two single quotation marks in a row ('').