June Q&A

Q. Should the word “nation” be capitalized?

A. If you are quoting from the Pledge of Allegiance (to the United States and its flag), then yes. As originally published, on September 8, 1892, in the Youth’s Companion, as part of a Columbus Day program for American schools, the pledge read as follows: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

The capital N was retained when the pledge was enacted by Congress into law in 1942, as were the capitals in “Flag” and “Republic”; “Liberty” and “Justice,” however, were demoted to “liberty” and “justice.” The current version retains the 1942 capitalization along with the words “under God” (added by congressional amendment in 1954).

All these capital letters evoke a religious and patriotic sensibility that was typical of a certain brand of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American prose. They also echo a Germanic influence according to which all nouns are capitalized, a practice that can be seen in English as late as the 1749 publication of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

But unless you are quoting the Pledge of Allegiance or writing a historical novel—or otherwise deliberately invoking a bygone age—write “nation.”

Q. I don’t understand why the following example in the serial comma section (CMOS 6.19) is not considered a comma splice: “Paul put the kettle on, Don fetched the teapot, and I made tea.”

A. Every so-called comma splice is a conjunction away from conformity. As comma splices go, the following sentence would be considered a classic case:

Paul put the kettle on, Don fetched the teapot.

You can fix the transgression by adding a conjunction or by changing the comma to a semicolon:

Paul put the kettle on, and Don fetched the teapot.

or

Paul put the kettle on; Don fetched the teapot.

But some editors would argue that the version with the comma splice isn’t truly an error; it’s simply two independent clauses joined by a conjunction that’s been elided: “Paul put the kettle on, [and] Don fetched the teapot.” Such elision is more common in casual prose, but it does have its place, particularly in creative writing.

With a series of three or more independent clauses, on the other hand, it is conventional to retain only the final “and”:

Paul put the kettle on, Don fetched the teapot, and I made tea.

You could place semicolons between the clauses, but most writers and editors save those for more complex series (see CMOS 6.60). As for supplying the “missing” conjunction, that would be pointless.

Q. I’ve gone through your section on commas numerous times, yet I can’t seem to find whether a comma would be used in the following instance: “You can be very helpful to your mother or father, or to a person you think of as a parent.”

A. Strictly speaking, the comma in your example is unnecessary. But such a comma may be added if the information that follows the conjunction needs emphasis or is intended as an afterthought—or, as in your example, to help readers navigate a hierarchy of alternatives by providing a sort of shorthand for “on the one hand . . . on the other.”

Even in the simplest of sentences, however, a bit of extra punctuation relative to an “or” or an “and” may be appropriate sometimes. Note how punctuation (or its absence) changes the emphasis in the following examples:

I’ll take an apple or a pear.
I’ll take an apple, or a pear.
I’ll take an apple—or a pear.
I’ll take an apple (or a pear).
I’ll take an apple. Or a pear.

All of these are correct. The conjunction “or” separates the alternatives; adding a comma, a dash, parentheses, or a period emphasizes that break in subtly different ways. But don’t go overboard. In general, it’s best to take a light hand with any punctuation that might be considered optional. When in doubt, leave it out.

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 lielaylain (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 laylaidlaid. 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. How do I cite text within an image? In a case where an etching or a poster contains text, how do I cite the text within the picture? I can’t find anything about this. Please help!

A. You might as well ask how to cite the text on page 302 of a novel. You’d cite the novel, not the text, and the principle is the same for artwork. If you consulted the etching or poster in a book, you would give details about the image in your text but cite the book; if you consulted it at a museum’s website, you would cite the website. In sum, quote from a source and describe it as needed; then cite the item that you consulted. For example,

The print, which features an atomic icon refashioned into a skull, carries a blunt warning: “Radioactive waste from nuclear power plants stays radioactive and deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.”1

__________

1. Mirko Ilic and Daniel Young, Radioactive Waste, 2010, screen print, 30 1/8 × 22 3/16 in. (76.5 × 56.4 cm), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2017.299.

For more examples, see CMOS 14.235.

Q. Does CMOS have recommendations for how to divide a mailing address in running text? For example, “You can visit the artist’s childhood home at 123 Central Avenue.” Is it permissible to end with “123” on one line and begin the next with “Central Avenue”? Or should “123” be moved down to the next line?

A. Chicago permits breaking a line at a space in almost all cases, with a few notable exceptions:

  • before and after the middle of three dots in an ellipsis: . . .
  • between an ellipsis and a mark of punctuation that follows: . . . ?
  • between contiguous quotation marks or apostrophes: “ ‘like this’ ”
  • between consecutive initials in a personal name: P. G. Wodehouse

In all such cases, a nonbreaking space may be used to prevent the break (see CMOS 6.121).

It’s also advisable to avoid a break between a numeral and an abbreviated unit of measurement (3 m); after a parenthetical enumerator like “(1)” or “(a)” in a run-in list; before (but not after) a middle initial; and before “Jr.” or “Sr.” or “II,” “III,” and the like at the end of a name. But with the exception of ellipses and quotation marks or apostrophes, preventing such breaks isn’t usually a priority online. In print, where the breaks become permanent, more fine-tuning may be appropriate (see CMOS 6.120).

But no intervention is necessary after a number in a street address.

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.)