Q. Is this use of the passive voice correct? “The restaurant’s excellent dinners had been being prepared by Chef Bob for many years.”
A. Not quite. Passive voice can be a good way to emphasize the results (excellent dinners) rather than the action that produced them (Chef Bob’s preparation). But as the grammatically redundant “had been being” reveals, there’s no such thing as a passive form of the past-perfect progressive tense—that is, the verb tense that describes an ongoing action that occurred in the past but ended at some definite point (also in the past), whether specified or implied.
To correct the grammar of your example, you’d have to switch to the past-progressive tense:
The restaurant’s excellent dinners were being prepared by Chef Bob for many years.
Or, as the better option, you could use the past-perfect tense alone:
The restaurant’s excellent dinners had been prepared by Chef Bob for many years.
The past-perfect may be the better option, but neither of those choices captures the sense of the past-perfect progressive. To use that, you’ll have to switch to the active voice:
Chef Bob had been preparing the restaurant’s excellent dinners for many years.
For a review of progressive tenses, see CMOS 5.135.
Q. Hello CMOS. Per your style, for phrasal adjectives including units of measurement, I’ve used the singular form of the unit in, for example, “100-foot-long boat” (instead of “100-feet-long boat”). An author has rejected my edits that revise “feet” to “foot”; telling him that this is incorrect because of a style guide has not convinced him to revert them back to the singular. Why, exactly, should the singular be used? I’m accustomed to it, but I’m unable to come up with a compelling reason.
A. Though it can depend as much on personal idiom as on logic, an argument in favor of “foot” rather than “feet” would be based on the fact that nouns used attributively are usually singular rather than plural. For example, a doctor who treats feet would be called a foot doctor, not a feet doctor. Or, to use an example that’s analogous to yours, plumbing that’s 100 years old would be 100-year-old plumbing, not 100-years-old plumbing. By the same token, you would refer to a 100-foot-long boat or, if the dimension goes without saying, a 100-foot boat. Whatever you do, stay dry.
Q. When referring to a decade, do you use “was” or “were”? “The 1780s was [were?] an important period in history.”
A. Aside from certain quantities (“ninety dollars is a lot of money”), plural numbers usually take plural verbs: for example, “The ’80s were great!” To be perfectly correct, then, avoid the lure of the singular “period” in the predicate and use “were”: “The 1780s were an important period in history.” Compare “The decade of the 1780s was an important period in history.” See also CMOS 5.141 (on false attraction to the predicate).
Q. When is the word that unnecessary? Here’s an example: “She manages the team, making sure that everyone is in the right role and that everything is of the highest quality.” Is it okay to remove those thats?
A. More than a few grammatically nebulous constructions are actually cases of omission—or what’s known as a grammatical ellipsis. In the following examples, the brackets supply information that would be understood from context or otherwise:
[It’s amazing] How ugly [that rock is]!
She’s taller than I [am]. (But see CMOS 5.46.)
Why [did you do that]?
Thousands rushed to serve him in victory; in defeat, none [of them did].
Jasper missed her and she [missed] him.
[Would you like] One lump [of sugar] or two [lumps of sugar]?
We made sure [that] everyone was happy.
The man [who is] in the moon isn’t real.
All those sentences make grammatical sense without the bracketed words that might complete them. In some cases the elliptical construction is preferable (as in the proverbial “man in the moon”). The “rule,” if we were to state one, would be simple: Any omission that sounds right and does not obscure or alter the intended meaning is an option.
Your example works well enough either way. If you favor economy, delete the thats. If you think they provide a bit of useful emphasis, keep them. If you’re unsure, try reading both versions of the sentence aloud. For more on relative pronouns and grammatical ellipses, see CMOS 5.226 and 5.229. (For the punctuation mark known as an ellipsis, see CMOS 13.50–58.)
Q. Hi all! I hope everyone is staying safe. I have a quick question. Should it be “What will my teacher say about my never returning to class?” or “What will my teacher say about me never returning to class?” Citations will help. I struggle with this frequently. Thank you so much! Take care.
A. Either one is acceptable, though “my” has traditionally been considered to be the more correct choice in sentences like yours. See CMOS 7.28 for an explanation and examples. For a grammar-based explanation, see CMOS 5.114.
The choice of “my” depends on reading “returning” as a gerund, which is a verb’s present participle acting as a noun. A noun can be the object of a preposition, and if “returning” is the object of the preposition “about,” then “my” is correct because a possessive pronoun is required before a noun. (For example, one would write about “my dog,” not “me dog.”)
But “me” is common in such constructions; it’s also grammatically defensible. If you read “me” as the object of the preposition “about,” then “returning” would function as a present participle that modifies the pronoun “me”—as in, “They saw me returning to class the other day.”
In sum, traditionalists may balk at “me” and the so-called fused participle that it creates, but “me” will have its supporters—and in some cases it’s the better choice.
Q. Is it okay to use “Latinx” instead of “Latino” or “Latina”?
A. Though it is still a new word and has yet to be embraced by everyone, “Latinx” has entered the mainstream by at least one measure: Merriam-Webster added “Latinx” in 2018, and the Oxford English Dictionary followed in 2019. For many people, particularly in the United States (the OED entry includes the label “Chiefly U.S.”), “Latinx” serves as an essential gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” (masc.) or “Latina” (fem.) to refer to people of Latin American descent. “Latinx” is more inclusive than two other common alternative forms—“Latino/a” and “Latin@”—both of which invoke the binary -o and -a endings derived from Spanish. A preference for “Latinx” (or one of the other alternative forms) should be respected, and editors should query authors about their preferred usage when in doubt.
Q. When is “lay” or “lie” used?
A. This question lay in our in-box for weeks, where we thought it might lie forever, and where it would have lain indefinitely had we not finally gotten around to answering it. Our first attempt to lay down a response wasn’t very good, so we laid it aside, but even if we’d laid down something worthwhile, we managed to lose it, so your question was still lying in our in-box before we finally succeeded in laying down the response you are reading right now.
As that first paragraph illustrates, the verb “to lie” is intransitive, so it doesn’t take an object; it describes a state of being rather than an action. It’s conjugated lie–lay–lain (for the present tense, past tense, and past participle). The present participle is “lying.”
The verb “to lay,” on the other hand, is transitive (with or without “down”), meaning that it takes an object (on which it acts). It’s conjugated lay–laid–laid. The present participle is “laying.”
So decide which one to use based on the presence or absence of an object. Then choose an appropriate tense and lie back—or lay yourself down if you’re not already prone—and enjoy the feeling that comes from knowing you’ve chosen your words with care.
Q. Which is the correct form when informally captioning a photo: “Lenny and me at the store” or “Lenny and I at the store”? I always use the former, reasoning that you would not caption a photo “I at the store,” but many people have “corrected” me.
A. “Lenny and me at the store” is perfectly correct; the caption is an elliptical sentence that might be expanded as follows: “This is a picture of Lenny and me at the store,” in which “Lenny” and “me” are both objects of the preposition “of.” As you have discovered, however, many people assume that “and me” must always be wrong, even where an object (“me”) rather than a subject (“I”) would normally be expected. This avoidance of “and me” in favor of “and I”—for the sake of politeness perhaps, or to avoid the appearance of making a mistake—isn’t the end of the world, but you should stick up for what’s right and insist on “Lenny and me.” After all, writers and editors have some say when it comes to how words are arranged on the page, informally or otherwise. (But don’t correct another person’s speech, and don’t be that person on social media. It’s not nice.)
Q. Hi there! In my research I often use the phrase “Israeli-based company,” and colleagues always push back, suggesting that “Israel-based company” sounds more correct. I’ve found references suggesting I’m right but would love confirmation (or correction!) from the good folks at Chicago. Many thanks.
A. In conflicts between logic and idiom, idiom sometimes wins. Logically, a company based in Israel is an Israel-based company. On the other hand, we usually refer to a company’s Israeli headquarters, not its Israel headquarters. Not that the latter form is wrong; a noun can be used attributively—that is, as an adjective but with no change in form—for any reason. We see this in the name “Canada goose,” for the common wild goose Branta canadensis. But that term is a relative outlier. With countries it’s natural to use the adjective form before the noun (the Canada goose is, generically speaking, a Canadian goose). With cities, on the other hand, the adjective form is rare: we refer to a company’s Tel Aviv headquarters, not its Tel Avivian headquarters (to use the accepted demonym). So when we talk about Canadian-style pizza (whatever that is) but Chicago-style commas, we’re expressing a preference for idiom over logic. But Israel isn’t Canada, and usage varies. If you look at Google’s Ngram Viewer, you’ll see that whereas “Canadian-based company” is more common in published (and usually edited) books than “Canada-based company” by a factor of more than two to one, “Israeli-based company” doesn’t even register. In sum, your colleagues would seem to have both logic and usage on their side, but Canada would probably welcome you.
Q. In running text, should “at” be included before an Instagram or Twitter handle? For example, “To learn more, tweet her @username” or “To learn more, tweet her at @username”?
A. Treat the handle as an ordinary noun and include the preposition, redundant as it may seem: “tweet her at @username.” If you were to read your example out loud, you could either emphasize the second “at” (“tweet her at at username”) or ignore it (“tweet her at username”). The first option will make it clear that you are referring to a handle as such. But a handle as handle is a special case. When you mention @Rihanna’s latest creations or an entry in @MerriamWebster—which would be read out loud as “Rihanna’s latest creations or an entry in Merriam-Webster”—the symbol is merely a tool for facilitating platform interactivity. Ignoring the at sign relative to the surrounding text allows for maximum flexibility. And these days, as any old hippie will tell you, that’s where it’s really @.