New Questions and Answers

Q. In previous Q&A entries, you’ve said to include a comma after “Inc.” or “Ltd.” if a comma precedes it: “The office of ABC, Inc., was located downtown.” I could understand the reason for this if “Inc.” were replaced by a generic description: “The office of ABC, an incorporated company, was located downtown.” But since “Inc.” is a capitalized part of a formal, proper name, wouldn’t this be analogous to the example in CMOS 6.17 about titles of works, in which a title containing a comma doesn’t need to be followed by a comma (“Look Homeward, Angel was not the working title of Wolfe’s manuscript”)? If not, what’s the distinction?

A. Our recommendation depends on the idea that “Inc.” isn’t truly a formal part of a company’s name (in spite of what some companies like to think). It is, rather, a description that attaches to the formal name but is itself generic—every bit as generic as your example, “an incorporated company.” In just about the same way, “Jr.” and “Sr.” function as generic but capitalized additions to a person’s name; they signal a relationship to a parent or child with the same name, but they are not intrinsic to any one name.

A comma in the title of a novel or other work, on the other hand, belongs to that title: it can’t be deleted as a simple matter of style, as we recommend doing before “Jr.” or “Inc.” (see CMOS 6.43 and 6.44). Nor does such a comma bear any syntactic relation to the surrounding text. The fact that titles of works are usually cordoned off from the surrounding text by italics or quotation marks supports this logic.

If you’re still not convinced, and if dropping the first comma isn’t an option (some companies will insist), follow the logic of titles of works and omit the second comma. Any logic, as long as you adhere to it consistently, is better than none.

Q. Bibliographical citations of books with more than two editors look weird to me. The following citation, at a glance, appears to have four editors, as there are four items separated by commas: Cypess, Rebecca, Beth L. Glixon, and Nathan Link, editors. Word, Image, and Song, Volume 1: Essays on Early Modern Italy. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2013. Is there a way to improve this citation and make it clear that there are three editors, Rebecca Cypess being just one person?

A. Yes, there is (aside from using semicolons, which we would not recommend; source citations are complicated enough as it is). Simply change the word order (and note that Chicago treats a volume number separately from the title; see CMOS 14.119):

Rebecca Cypess, Beth L. Glixon, and Nathan Link, eds. Word, Image, and Song. Vol. 1, Essays on Early Modern Italy. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2013.

There: it no longer looks like a book by four editors, the first two of whom happen to be mononymous. But if you plan to include the citation in an alphabetical list, change it back to how it was; otherwise, the reason for doing this will become evident when you get to the letter R (at which point inverted names should start to seem normal).

Q. I understand CMOS’s position on this, but I need help with my argument. Our company’s acronym is singular and ends in an S, just like CMOS. I want to write it with an apostrophe s when needing possession, but others want to use only the apostrophe, as in CMOS’. I need help with my argument with my boss. Thank you.

A. Unlike a personal name that ends in an s (e.g., Harris), an all-caps acronym like CMOS (pronounced SEE-moss) doesn’t even have the appearance of a plural; the s that signals a plural ending is normally lowercase. (A company with two chief marketing officers would have two CMOs, not two CMOS.) So even if you followed a style that prefers Harris’ reputation to Harris’s reputation, an expression like TASS’ headquarters (for the Russian news agency) would risk being misread, whereas TASS’s headquarters is perfectly clear. The same could be said for an initialism, which is pronounced as a series of letters: CBS’s newscasts is more clearly possessive than CBS’ newscasts. We sincerely hope you manage to win your argument (and keep your s).

Q. Should numerals and spelled-out numbers be italicized if they’re being referred to as numbers, as in “The number twelve is significant in the Old Testament”? What about a personal name being referred to as a name?

A. In either case, italics are unnecessary. Write “the number twelve” (or “the number 12”; see CMOS 9.3 for Chicago’s alternative rule for spelling out numbers) and, for example, “the name Ruth.”

Italics (or quotation marks) for words or letters used as such are designed to prevent misreading the word or letter as literally part of the grammatical sentence; no such ambiguity is likely with numbers or names. So, for example, the following sentence could be ambiguous without italics or quotation marks:

The word search was starting to bother me.

On the other hand, special treatment may be necessary for names or numbers in certain cases:

Type “Ruth” into the search box, then hit Enter.

Q. Does the rule in CMOS 7.53 about non-English words hold for names of food and dishes, even if there is no English equivalent? For example, “He made rustici, Italian pastries.” “Her favorite dish is aloo paratha.” “My favorite dish is kacchi biryani.” Should “rustici,” “aloo paratha,” and “kacchi biryani” be in italics?

A. Good question! The purpose of using italics for non-English words in an English-language context is (a) to prevent them from being misunderstood as an unfamiliar English word (or as a typographical error) and (b) to signal a switch from English spelling style to another convention.

But italics aren’t automatically necessary for non-English words in an English context. In the context of your examples it’s obvious that the terms are names of food. The choice can also depend on the frequency of such words (isolated terms are more likely to merit italics) and on the perspective of the narrator or speaker. For example, a non-English term used in dialogue would rarely merit italics, since it can be assumed that it is part of the vocabulary of the person speaking it.

Q. This sentence has a dual subject but the author has a singular verb, which sounds right to the ear but can’t be correct, right? Here is the sentence: “Building and extending sewer systems requires large capital investments.” Should it read “require” to match the “building and extending” or can those two things be somehow considered as a single thing? Thank you!

A. A compound subject usually takes a plural verb, but not if the components in the subject are being considered as a single unit or concept. The line is subjective and may depend on context:

Kneading and stretching dough isn’t as easy as it looks.

Kneading and stretching dough are two separate but related skills.

The first example considers the two activities together, as a related set of actions; the second considers these same actions separately.

Nor does the choice of verb depend on the additional noun, which has merely been elided before the conjunction. Even if the noun is repeated, the considerations are the same:

Kneading dough and stretching it isn’t as easy as it looks.

And if you reduce the example to the gerunds, either of the following would also work, depending on context and intended meaning:

Kneading and stretching takes practice.

Kneading and stretching take practice.

In your example, “requires” is probably fine, but if the context suggests that the investments may apply to building and extending in separate stages, your safest choice would be “require.” And if there’s any doubt about the author’s intention, choose the plural.

Q. According to CMOS, which is the correct use . . . “OK” or “okay”? I’m having difficulty finding the answer to what I hope is an easy question. Thank you!

A. “OK” and “okay” are informal, so even though we might normally choose the first-listed “OK” in Merriam-Webster (rather than its equal variant “okay”), it doesn’t really matter which form of this handy nineteenth-century abbreviation you prefer. Both appear in CMOS 17, all but once as “OK” in examples that feature informal prose (and not counting its appearance as an abbreviation for Oklahoma). The one time the term appears in our own explanatory text, we chose “okay,” which looks more like a real word (see CMOS 14.5, first bullet point). In texts or email, you’ll face a different set of choices that are beyond the scope of CMOS. But if you can somehow manage to strike a balance between personal preference, on the one hand, and considerations related to context, desired tone, audience, and the changing fashions of internet language, on the other, you should be just fine (as in A-OK). Okeydoke?

January Q&A

Q. I am editing a brief in which the author has used “and/or” multiple times. I know that this term should be avoided, but I’m not exactly sure why. Is it because it’s confusing and ambiguous? What is The Chicago Manual of Style’s stance?

A. CMOS, in chapter 5, says to “avoid this Janus-faced term” (5.250, s.v. “and/or”). Janus-faced means duplicitous—in other words, appearing to say two contradictory things simultaneously. The problem is the slash, which is potentially ambiguous; for example, readers might choose to interpret “x and/or y” as meaning either x and y or just y—but not x alone. In fact, “x and/or y” is usually intended to mean “x or y, or both,” and where that is the case, section 5.250 recommends writing exactly that (take a sleeping pill or a warm drink, or both). In many cases, however, “or” alone would make the meaning perfectly clear. For example, “no cats or dogs allowed” means that no combination of cats or dogs—or cats and dogs—is allowed. In formal prose, including legal writing, such considerations of the precisely intended meaning are important. In casual prose, “and/or” can occasionally serve as a useful shorthand: bring your own beer and/or wine. No one will fail to understand the meaning of that.

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?

banana
apple
blueberry
cherry
pineapple

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?

but

Do you prefer apples or bananas or blueberries? [See CMOS 6.67.]

Q. Hello! I have a comma question. Which is the preferred punctuation: Amherst, Massachusetts’ Emily Dickinson . . . OR Amherst, Massachusetts’, Emily Dickinson . . . ? Recasting the sentence is not a useful option because there is a longish list of names and places: Long Branch, New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen and Lachine, Quebec’s Saul Bellow and . . . Thanks.

A. Rewriting to avoid the possessive is (almost) always an option; that’s what “of” is for. Try “Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts; Bruce Springsteen of Long Branch, New Jersey; etc.” Parentheses are another useful alternative: “Emily Dickinson (Amherst, Massachusetts)” (or vice versa). But if you must stick to the possessive, you have our permission to drop the second comma (the one after the state or province) as a reasonable exception to Chicago’s preference for commas in pairs, a preference that applies also to dates (see CMOS 6.17 and 6.38–39). Note that Chicago style for the possessive form of Amherst’s home state requires an apostrophe and an s: Massachusetts’s Emily Dickinson (another incentive to avoid the possessive).

Q. Now that Merriam-Webster has legitimized the singular “they,” where does CMOS stand on the subject?

A. First, please note that there are two uses for the singular “they,” generic and specific. In 2019 Merriam-Webster added a specific sense of singular “they” to refer to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific (or binary) pronoun (“A Note on the Nonbinary ‘They’: It’s Now in the Dictionary,” Merriam-Webster, September 19, 2019). This use of “they” was recognized in the 17th edition of CMOS, published in 2017 (see paragraph 5.48). So Chicago and Merriam-Webster are in sync on that.

Singular “they” is also used as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, an established usage that nonetheless has long been considered informal. As of the 17th edition, CMOS recognizes that such usage is gaining acceptance in formal writing but still advises avoiding it if possible—for example, by rewriting to use the plural (see CMOS 5.255). Generic singular “they” has been around for a long time, however, and most editors here at Chicago have no problem with such constructions as everyone should bring their favorite book to the event—where “their” refers back to the indefinite (and usually singular) pronoun “everyone.” And many of us have come to accept less firmly established usages such as each programmer worked in their preferred language. Like it or not, “they” has been displacing “he or she” and similar attempts to write around the English language’s lack of a dedicated gender-neutral singular pronoun for some time now. Stay tuned for further developments.

Q. In the sentence “It happened on the twenty-fourth of July,” should the date be spelled out or a numeral? CMOS 9.31 only addresses the treatment of ordinals when the month is not mentioned.

A. We get this question a lot. Let’s start with the conventional formats—July 24, 2020 (typical US style); 24 July 2020 (typical style outside the US); 2020-07-24 (ISO style). Each of these uses a cardinal rather than an ordinal numeral for the day, whether the year is expressed or not (i.e., July 24 or 24 July, not July 24th or 24th July). Outside of these conventional formats, our recommendation would be to spell out ordinals for the day of the week even when the month is mentioned: the twenty-fourth of July; the twenty-fourth (but the Fourth of July or the Fourth for the US holiday; see CMOS 8.89). But keep in mind that this rule applies primarily to formal, long-form prose—so it’s possibly a little too formal for many contexts; if you prefer numerals, or if you need to use them to save space, you have our blessing (the 24th of July, or the 24th). And if you follow Chicago’s alternative system of spelling out only one through nine, an all-numeral approach for days will facilitate consistency (e.g., we’ll be offering tours on the 1st, 2nd, and 24th of July).

Q. Would you use “less” or “fewer” with “CO₂ emissions”? To me, “emissions” seems like a measurable, uncountable substance, so I would say “less.” However, a quick search on Google Ngrams shows “fewer emissions” is more common. Which is correct? Or should it be “lower” instead? And if so, why?

A. Your preference for “less” makes a lot of sense. In formal writing, however, “fewer” has long been preferred with a plural noun, no matter how difficult it might be to count. According to that preference, if it takes a plural verb, you would use “fewer”: so, fewer CO₂ emissions, but less CO₂ (carbon dioxide is a mass—or noncount—noun: CO₂ is; CO₂ emissions are). It may be helpful to consider the case of “data.” Even though “data” doesn’t look like a plural, you would write “less data” or “fewer data” depending on whether you consider “data” as a mass noun (as in common usage) or as a plural (as in the sciences).

We had a lot less data to support our hypothesis than we wanted. [data as mass noun]

but

The second group of researchers returned fewer data than the first. [data as a plural noun]

The latter usage—including the use of “fewer”—is supported by the AMA Manual of Style (10th ed., sec. 7.8.2). In other words, the data support(s) “fewer emissions.”

The alternative “lower emissions” can also work. Unlike temperatures or costs, which can be higher or lower in the singular or the plural, we don’t normally talk of a higher or lower emission singular. But we do talk of higher or lower emissions plural—where “level(s)” is understood. And an Ngram comparison of “fewer,” “less,” and “lower” as adjectives modifying “emissions” (adding “_ADJ” to a term filters out other parts of speech) shows that “lower emissions” is more common than the other two phrases combined.

In sum, “fewer” is considered to be correct, but “lower” is a good alternative—and well established. Meanwhile, though “less emissions” seems like a rational choice (it’s unambiguous, and it has the advantage of being the shortest option), avoid it if your goal is to satisfy any sticklers.

Q. In a recent Q&A the hyphens look like en dashes to me. Are they, and if they are, why?

A. You must be referring to the main entries for “fund-raiser” and “fund-raising” in the screenshot from the first printing of the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Those do look like en dashes, but they are presented that way for maximum legibility: for one thing, regular hyphens might be confused with the centered dots that indicate places where a hyphen may be added to divide a word at the end of a line. In other words, “fund–rais·er” is easier to interpret at a glance as a hyphenated term than “fund-rais·er” would be. For what it’s worth, at Merriam-Webster.com, the hyphens in main entries are really hyphens. For the entry words online, however, M-W uses the font Playfair Display, which has the advantage of featuring generously long hyphens. This matters a bit less in the online version of the dictionary, where suggested word division is shown on a separate line, below the main entry (and in a different font that happens to feature shorter hyphens). But as this screenshot from the definition for “self-conscious” shows, the extra-long hyphen is strikingly legible: