August Q&A

Q. Does CMOS prefer “best seller” and “best-selling” per the dictionary spelling (over AP style of one word, no hyphen, for both)?

A. Because best seller (two words) is the first-listed spelling in Merriam-Webster (as of August 3, 2021), Chicago would still recommend it, along with the hyphenated best-selling. But in 2017, when the seventeenth edition of CMOS was published, those—along with best-sellerdom and best-seller list (with hyphens)—were the only options listed in that dictionary. The spelling bestseller (one word) was introduced—as a second-listed equal variant—sometime after that.

As for AP’s preference for bestselling and bestseller, those are also relatively new, dating to May 2019. Meanwhile, the OED lists bestseller and most of its derivatives, including bestsellership and bestsellerism, as one word; the verb best-sell (with a hyphen) is the sole exception.

If this looks like a trend, it is—as a comparison of each iteration of “best seller” and “best-selling” in Google’s Ngram Viewer for books published since 1900 confirms (with a clear preference for bestseller and bestselling emerging in recent decades):

So unless you are obligated to choose the first-listed spellings in Merriam-Webster (e.g., for reasons of consistency in an ongoing project edited in Chicago style or to conform to house style), you’d be more than justified in preferring one word for bestseller and bestselling and the like. By the time the next edition of CMOS rolls around, we’d be surprised if these hadn’t become our first choices also.

Q. Are URLs always included in a first footnote citation in Chicago style? (Full disclosure: I hate it! It makes the page footers look like a bunch of gobbledegook.) I know that style is always evolving, but this practice seems like a redundancy when the URLs are in the bibliography. Any insight would be appreciated.

A. According to CMOS 14.29, a source that’s cited in full in the bibliography need not be cited in full in the notes, even the first time it appears. So yes, in a work that features a bibliography, URLs included there may be omitted from the notes—even if a note appears in full rather than shortened form.

Note that this advice applies mainly to works intended for publication, where space is often at a premium and where readability is a primary consideration. If you’re a student, you should clear it with your instructor, who may prefer not to have to shuttle back and forth between notes and bibliography to double-check URLs and track down sources cited in your paper. See also “Taming Messy URLs” at CMOS Shop Talk for some strategies for making URLs more manageable.

Q. According to several sources, the word “Indigenous” should be capitalized when referring directly to Indigenous peoples. However, I am uncertain as to whether this term should be capitalized when referring to aspects of Indigenous society, such as Indigenous/indigenous artistic and cultural traditions. Thank you.

A. We would capitalize “Indigenous” in both contexts: that of Indigenous people and groups, on the one hand, and Indigenous culture and society, on the other. Lowercase “indigenous” would be reserved for contexts in which the term does not apply to Indigenous people in any sense—for example, indigenous plant and animal species. A parallel distinction arises for the word “black,” which many writers now capitalize in references to ethnicity and culture (a usage that CMOS supports) but not, for example, when it is simply a color.

Q. I work with many first-time authors, and many of them want to argue about commas. Of course as author, they have the final decision of their own work . . . but I keep running into the idea of breath: “My high school English teacher taught me that commas go where you want to take a breath, so that’s why this comma should be here.” What would you say to these authors?

A. The rules on comma usage in CMOS (chapter 6) favor writing over speaking. The goal is to provide readers with the minimum number of signposts required to navigate sentence structure. Sentence structure is logical. Pauses or breaths, on the other hand, tend to be personal. Though commas will often correspond to pauses, no two people will read the same sentence in precisely the same way.

For most types of expository writing, we’d advise following a consistent set of rules that assign commas based on sentence structure rather than pauses or breaths (or what some would refer to as rhythm). This approach will support the goal of producing clear, unambiguous prose.

But in fiction and poetry and other forms of creative writing, there’s more room for stylistic variation. Some writers apply commas with a light touch; others punctuate more closely. Henry James was a stylist of the latter type:

It led, in short, in the course of the October afternoon, to his closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder, yet not quite a remembrance, as they sat, much separated, at a very long table, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly. (“The Beast in the Jungle,” in The Better Sort [Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903], 190)

This sentence might be edited to conform to Chicago style as follows:

It led in short, in the course of the October afternoon, to his closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder yet not quite a remembrance as they sat much separated at a very long table, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly.

James famously dictated his writing by that point in his career; one can imagine him pausing over each successive layer of meaning as he spoke the words aloud. But when the goal is primarily to make sure readers understand the text rather than to provide a record of the creative process, all those extra commas can get in the way.

So unless you’re dealing with an accomplished prose stylist, you might say to your recalcitrant authors that whereas at least some of their readers will be annoyed by superfluous or random commas, few if any will miss them when they’re gone. For another take on this subject, see “Sure, You Got A’s in English—But Do You Know Where Commas Go?” at CMOS Shop Talk.

Q. Hello! I understand that when an indefinite pronoun like “everything” is the subject of a clause, it takes a singular verb (per CMOS 5.67). But I’m stumped by the following sentence, whose compound subject is composed of two indefinite pronouns: “Everything we say and everything we do [is/are] built on this idea.” Does it take a singular or a plural verb? The singular sounds better to my ear, but the plural seems like the logical choice.

A. We agree with your assessment. Though it seems logical that two (or more) singular subjects joined by and would take a plural verb, the results won’t always sound right. In the case of indefinite pronouns that take a singular verb, they can remain singular in combination. For example,

Anyone and everyone was there tonight.

That seems right to us—though MS Word’s grammar checker flags was in that sentence as a potential error and suggests were as a correction. In your sentence, you might try “Everything we say and do is built on this idea.” That’s more concise—and more obviously singular. But there’s nothing wrong with your version, which has the advantage of being nicely emphatic.

Q. I cannot find anything in CMOS to corroborate my hunch that a capital should be used in cases like the following: (1) “Please note: It is important to unplug the appliance after using it.” (2) “Hint: You may not need all the letters to solve the puzzle.” (3) In the acknowledgments section of a book, “Jennifer, James, and Joe: Thank you for all your support.” Some might argue that the word following the colon in each of those instances should begin lowercase, as in the second example under paragraph 6.61, but that doesn’t seem right to me. Thanks for your help.

A. We agree with your hunch. When a word, a phrase, or a dependent clause introduces a complete sentence with the help of a colon, that sentence usually gets a capital letter:

Note: Semicolons are not allowed past this point.

and

Please note: Semicolons are not allowed past this point.

This is exactly how speech tags work (and see CMOS 6.65):

She said, “Find your own way.”

or

She said: “Find your own way.”

Some style guides advise capitalizing the first word of any full sentence that follows a colon, but Chicago’s more traditional approach treats a colon between two complete sentences as it would a semicolon:

Semicolon
The party lasted until exactly midnight; that’s when the gas in the generator ran out.

Colon
The end of the party was signaled by an abrupt silence: the generator had run out of gas.

If the lowercase letter after the colon in that last example is too subtle for your purposes, you have our permission to depart from Chicago and apply a capital letter—or maybe try a dash instead.

Q. What is the plural of a last name ending in a silent x? I just read an article using “the Robidouxes” and wondered if it should be “the Robidouxs” or “the Robidoux.” Thank you for your response.

A. See CMOS 7.11: “Names ending in an unpronounced s or x are best left in singular form.” Examples include “the seventeen Louis of France” and “The class included three Margaux.” So we would recommend the spelling “Robidoux” for both the singular and the plural. If for any reason you were to depart from Chicago and add an s for the plural, then either an es (as in the article you read) or an s—applied consistently—could work for names ending in x but not s (ss may not read as plural). If the final x or s is pronounced, an es would be required (e.g., “two Felixes”).