New Questions and Answers

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:

December Q&A

Q. Greetings, wise ones. I work with a university press; the university itself insists on capitalizing the first “The” in its name, even in running text and with the abbreviated form. I have refused to do this in our books because it flies in the face of house style and looks ridiculous in the context of other university names (“We conducted our research at the University of X, The University of Y [The UY], and the University of Z”). Needless to say, the university itself did not consult its press when developing its style guide. Those authors who are staff members keep “correcting” the lowercase t. Do I have a leg to stand on here? Or do I have to update our style sheet to indicate this exception? (Surely only The Hague gets to keep the capital T?) Grateful for at least sympathy if not vindication.

A. So you work for a school like The New School or The Ohio State University? We understand. The editors at the University of Chicago Press have long had to swallow our stylebook and allow “© [year] by The University of Chicago” on page iv of our books, including The Chicago Manual of Style. Evidently our attorneys want to ensure that some rogue institution calling itself “University of Chicago” doesn’t claim the copyright to our works. Elsewhere in these same books, however, the “the” doesn’t get a capital T (except at the beginning of a sentence or heading—or where all caps have been applied). So your predicament is not quite the same as ours. And whereas outsiders can write about “the Ohio State University”—which reflects the preference for the definite article but doesn’t go so far as to apply the promotional T—you might do well to let your institutional authors have it their way. Life’s too short to fight about such things.

Q. I have an ongoing disagreement with another scholar that I’m hoping you can help resolve. He suggests that the phrase “early modern” requires hyphenation when used as an adjective (ex.: “early-modern literature”). I would instead say “early modern literature”; is there a right answer here?

A. Your colleague has reason on his side—the hyphen would help readers understand that you’re talking about literature from the early modern period (or, sorry: the early-modern period) rather than modern literature that was early in some other sense of the word. But the latter reading is extremely unlikely, and your colleague’s preference is contrary to established usage. The Oxford English Dictionary includes a subentry under “early” (adj. and n.) for “early modern” as a compound adjective, and none of the cited examples, which date back to 1817, include a hyphen. Verdict: you’re right and he’s wrong.

Q. Hello, this question is in regard to paragraph 8.54 of the Manual. One of the examples of a generic term for a geographic entity is “the Hudson River valley.” I was wondering why “valley” is not capitalized, despite being part of the proper name. I am most likely just missing a really big point here, but it feels like the equivalent of saying “the Grand canyon.” Thank you so much for your help and your time!

A. The unstated point of CMOS 8.54 is that words like “valley” aren’t automatically considered part of a proper name. Life would be easier if usage never varied, but it does. To take another example from 8.54, the Thames is often referred to as such or, more specifically, as the river Thames (not the Thames River). So in Peter Ackroyd’s Thames: Sacred River (London: Vintage Books, 2008), it’s “the river Thames” (or just “the Thames”). But a search at the UK government’s website shows a preference for “the River Thames.” Who is right? Paragraph 8.54 supports Ackroyd’s usage, but the main thing is to be consistent. As for the Hudson River, the valley is often referred to as the Hudson Valley (or, yes, the Hudson River Valley), but in its article on the Hudson River, Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to “the Hudson valley.” Britannica’s article is using the word “valley” descriptively, and you can think of paragraph 8.54 as giving you permission to do the same—especially where preferred usage may be in doubt.

Q. When citing a book in a bibliography, endnotes, etc., one does not include the name of the library that holds the volume consulted. Why, then, must we continue to include the URL of books we’ve consulted online that have been scanned by Google Books, HathiTrust, or the Internet Archive, to name a few such providers? Isn’t the internet as common a place a researcher would go to find a book these days as is a library or bookstore? Why is it necessary any longer to give internet sources “credit” for “possessing” a copy of a book when physical holders have always gone “uncredited”?

A. Do it for your readers. Most of them will have access to the three databases you mention. And each of those databases provides full access to many books in the public domain, which in the US has long included works published before 1923 (see table 4.1 in CMOS for a summary of the rules; note that, as of January 1, 2019, according to the ninety-five-year rule, works published in 1923 have also entered the public domain, in a process that will be repeated at the beginning of each new year). Providing a URL for one of those books is as good as handing it to your readers to examine for themselves. Let’s say you cite the first edition of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, published anonymously in 1811. Readers would have to do some digging to find that edition without a link. So why not provide one?

Austen, Jane [as “A Lady”]. Sense and Sensibility. 3 vols. London, 1811. https://archive.org/details/sensesensibility131aust/.

That way readers will see what you see, and if you publish your work, you’ll be prepared to link to the source however you want. For example,

Austen, Jane [as “A Lady”]. Sense and Sensibility. 3 vols. London, 1811. Internet Archive.

A link to a database has some additional advantages. For example, readers will learn from the Internet Archive’s record for Sense and Sensibility that it was contributed by Duke University Libraries. A bit more research will lead you to the physical copy at Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. But you don’t have to add that to your source citation.

Q. Hi there. I’m wondering if you can resolve what seems to me to be a contradiction in the Manual. I’ve got short-form notes and a bibliography that include names with lowercased particles (e.g., du). CMOS 8.5 says the particle is “always capitalized when beginning a sentence or a note.” But CMOS 14.21 says, “A bibliography entry starts with a capital letter unless the first word would normally be lowercased (as in a last name that begins with a lowercase particle; see 8.5).” Sorry if I’m missing something, but aren’t these two sections contradicting each other? Or are short-form notes and bibliography entries really supposed to treat such names differently?

A. You’re not missing anything. In Chicago style, bibliography entries are listed alphabetically by author, and the name of the first-listed author for each source is inverted and styled exactly like entries in a Chicago-style index. Chicago’s preference is for index entries that begin lowercase, so particles like “du” in a name like Daphne du Maurier remain lowercase.

du Maurier, Daphne. The Scapegoat. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.

Numbered notes, on the other hand, are treated like sentences and capitalized and punctuated accordingly. The first letter of the note is capitalized, and the facts of publication are separated by commas instead of periods (or placed within parentheses):

1. Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 33.

Shortened notes are treated in the same way, so the “du” gets a capital D:

2. Du Maurier, Scapegoat, 121–22.

This treatment ensures that all notes—including discursive notes—will be consistent with each other (and with the text to which they refer):

3. Du Maurier’s other novels . . .
4. In 1938, du Maurier . . .

Q. I’ve been told not to refer to the object of a preposition with a pronoun, as in “In the article by Frank Bruni, he claims . . .” Should this instead be “In the article by Frank Bruni, Bruni claims . . .”?

A. The first version is open to ambiguity: “he” might refer to someone other than Bruni who is quoted by Bruni in the article. To avoid the awkward repetition (“Bruni, Bruni”) in the corrected version, you could reword: “In his opinion piece for the New York Times, Frank Bruni claims . . .” You will want to more fully identify the article by date and title elsewhere, either in the text or in a note. However, there is no general rule that the object of a preposition can’t subsequently be referred to with a pronoun. For example, “When I spoke to Frank Bruni, he confirmed . . .” Just make sure the meaning is clear.

Q. Hello. Is it appropriate to use ’s for “is”? For example: John’s running every day.

A. It’s a little informal for expository prose, where it would be better to write “John is running every day.” But in quoted speech or dialogue in a story or a novel, the contraction might be the best choice for representing how the sentence was actually spoken or how it might be spoken in real life. In sum, Chicago’s not going to tell you that you can’t use it. Ba dum tss.