New Questions and Answers

Q. Why does a comma follow Washington, DC, in running text?

A. That second comma helps to set “DC” off from the surrounding text; together, the commas work like parentheses. (Like parentheses, such commas always come in pairs.) Consider that without the second comma, a misreading is possible. For example, “Washington, DC is a great city” might mean that you are telling someone named Washington that DC is a great city. Another option is to omit both commas: “Washington DC is a great city.” That’s US Postal Service style for mailing labels, but it’s not Chicago style for running text (though maybe one day it will be).

Q. I’m not sure when to use a comma following a date at the beginning of a sentence. Can you help? For example, “In the 1960s, McManus declared victory . . .” or “In 1967, McManus selected Jones as the victor . . .” A fellow editor suggests striking all of the commas that follow the dates. 

A. Your editor friend’s suggestion is reasonable, and Chicago recommends much the same approach (see CMOS 6.31). But it’s also reasonable to disagree in certain cases. Wherever a comma might be helpful for clarity (or for emphasis), add one: for example, “By 1967, 357 residents had returned to the complex.” (That comma keeps the numerals from appearing to run together.) In general, a flexible approach will serve the reader better than a rigid one.

Q. I’m a Spanish–English translator, mostly in the arts. Citations in Spanish often include the place of publication of a journal. This is not mentioned in the Manual (as far as I can see). Any thoughts on this?

A. According to CMOS 14.182, the place or institution where a journal is published may be added if the journal might be confused with a similar title, or if the title might be unfamiliar to readers. You could omit this information then (even if it occurs in the original citation) for titles that are well known (or easy to locate online). Otherwise it may be retained in parentheses, following the title of the journal. The following example includes the name of the university that publishes the journal:

Palacios Sanz, José Ignacio. “Evolución, espacios y contenidos del archivo y de la librería musical de la catedral de Burgo de Osma.” Anuario de Historia de la Iglesia (Universidad de Navarra) 27 (2018): 297–323.

The Palacios Sanz article conveniently includes an English-language title and abstract, so you could instead present the citation as follows (see also CMOS 14.99):

Palacios Sanz, José Ignacio. “Development, Spaces and Contents of the Archive and Music Library of the Cathedral of Burgo de Osma.” [In Spanish.] Anuario de Historia de la Iglesia (University of Navarre) 27 (2018): 297–323.

Q. Hi, I was just wondering, how do you format the citation for a translated work if the name of the translator is not known?

A. For a book, you could adapt the usual format for translated titles (see CMOS 14.104), substituting information about the translation for the translator’s name. The fact that the name of the translator is not known could be added in square brackets. (Adapt as needed for other types of sources.)

Last Name, First Name. Title of Book in English. Translated from the Russian [translator unknown]. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

The definite article in “Translated from the Russian” is conventional (it implies “from the Russian edition” or “from the Russian text”). Some editors will choose to omit it.

Q. Is the serial/Oxford comma generally used in British English? If the guidelines do not specify anything, what would be the appropriate usage?

A. You would think that the Oxford (or serial) comma would be popular in British English. And it is, but it’s not exactly British law.

The latest iteration of Oxford’s venerable style guide (New Hart’s Rules, 2nd ed., 2014; this guide, like Chicago’s, has its origins in the 1890s) supports its use but allows it to be omitted: “For a century it has been a part of Oxford University Press style to retain or impose this last comma consistently, to the extent that the convention has also come to be called the Oxford comma. . . . The general rule is that one style or the other should be used consistently. However, the last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity” (p. 77). Butcher’s Copy-Editing, published by Cambridge University Press (4th ed., 2006), likewise treats serial commas as optional: “A comma should be consistently omitted or included before the final ‘and’ or ‘or’ in lists of three or more items” (p. 156).

In its own text, the guide by Cambridge omits serial commas; Oxford’s retains them.

So for British English, use serial commas or omit them, but do so consistently. And if you go without, make sure to add a comma wherever its absence might create ambiguity.

Q. I’m wondering about omitting the periods for US Department of Energy. On its site, it’s U.S. Do we follow the department’s preference or Chicago style?

A. The name of the organization is the United States Department of Energy. When you follow Chicago style to write “US Department of Energy,” you are abbreviating the fuller form of the name. The abbreviation at Energy.gov probably follows the GPO Style Manual, published by the US Government Publishing Office. GPO style uses periods in “U.S.” (and “U.K.” and the like), and those periods are a matter of government style. But unless you’re writing for the government, it is safe to omit them.

Q. It’s my observation that increasingly, in a sentence like this, the commas are being omitted, no matter how many sisters there are: “I wanted to go to the store, but my sister Sara refused.” Can’t we just admit that it’s cleaner and easier to omit them most of the time, unless there’s genuinely a clarity issue? The world is changing; can we make this official? Thank you.

A. In casual correspondence and the like, it’s OK to omit such commas wherever details related to family composition are unimportant or irrelevant (in other words, most of the time). So “my sister Sara” is totally fine in casual usage even if Sara is your only sister (and therefore functioning as a nonrestrictive appositive, which would normally be set off by commas). Consider that official. In more formal prose, however, these commas can be important. In a work of history or a biography—where the presence or absence of commas will help readers follow the narrative—they are essential. In other types of works, the rule can often be relaxed. (That’s not an official ruling, but it is a practical one.) For more on restrictive versus nonrestrictive appositives, see CMOS 6.28.

March Q&A

Q. In the following sentence, is a comma necessary after the word “was”? Her reply was “No, but I’ll think about it.”

A. When a verb like “said,” “stated,” “wrote,” or “replied” introduces a quotation, a comma usually follows the verb: She replied, “No, but I’ll think about it.” (“She said” and the like are sometimes called speaker or dialogue tags.) This comma is a matter of tradition rather than logic, because a comma isn’t usually needed between a verb and its object or complement: she said nothing; her reply was final. In your example, because “be” and its forms aren’t thought of as traditional dialogue verbs, a comma isn’t needed after “was” (though some writers and editors will prefer to add one for an appearance of consistency). See also CMOS 13.14 and 13.15.

Q. What is the CMOS stance regarding the use of numerals for a year at the beginning of the sentence? For example, “1980 was indeed a good year.” I see that AP allows it, but I don’t know if you do.

A. CMOS still recommends spelling out any number at the beginning of a sentence (see CMOS 9.5). If the result is awkward, as it often is with a year, the recommendation is to reword: The year 1980 was indeed a good one. This rule is an editorial nicety: a numeral isn’t as effective as a capital letter at signaling the start of a new sentence. In other words, it’s a rule you can break in all but the most polished, CMOS-approved prose—for example, you can ignore it in casual correspondence or where space is at a premium (or if you follow AP style!).

Q. When did CMOS first recommend one space (instead of two) after periods and colons? I found the one-space rule in the 15th edition, but I remember hearing somewhere that it goes back to the 13th edition. I’m trying to win arguments with people who claim it’s a “new” rule.

A. The sample typewritten manuscript page in CMOS 13 (1982) shows two spaces after a period; in CMOS 14 (1993), it shows one (fig. 2.1 in both editions). But CMOS 15 (2003) was the first edition to make an explicit recommendation for one space after a period (or a colon) in typed manuscripts. It’s a little more complicated for published documents. The 1st edition (1906) described a system of variable spacing that was the norm at the time. (For example, an “em quad” was recommended between sentences—three times the amount of space required between words.) By 1949, when the 11th edition was published, equal spacing was the rule: “The standard for composition [typesetting] such as that in the text of this book would be a 3-to-em space [a third of an em] . . . between words, after colons, after exclamation and interrogation points, and after periods ending sentences” (11th ed., p. 8). So “one space” is a relatively new convention for manuscripts but less new for published documents.

Q. When presenting a Q&A with a note like “This interview has been edited for length and clarity,” how much can you edit the interview? Should you still use ellipses and brackets, or does that note mean these devices aren’t needed?

A. Such a note gets you off the ellipses-and-brackets hook. As for how much to edit, don’t do anything that might distort the interviewee’s intended meaning. If possible, share a final draft of the interview with the interviewee prior to publication. Interviews written and edited in collaboration with the interviewee usually won’t require any kind of editorial note. A previously published interview, on the other hand, is treated like any previously published source: omissions or clarifications would need to be signaled in the text with ellipses or brackets or explained in a note. For more advice, see CMOS 13.48.

Q. In the less-than-ideal situation of notes without a final bibliography, when citing a specific page reference in a journal article, should the full page range of the article be given in addition to the particular page, and if so, how? Thank you!

A. Good question! Usually you don’t have to include the page range for the article in addition to a specific page reference, even if the note is not supplemented by a fuller reference elsewhere. A page range in a bibliography entry helps readers locate the article absent any specific locator; a specific page reference in a note serves that purpose also (in that way doing double duty). But if you had to list both for some reason, the following format should work:

1. Susan Satterfield, “Livy and the Pax Deum,” Classical Philology 111, no. 2 (April 2016): 165–76, 170.

Readers consulting the source will figure out soon enough that the page range applies to the article as a whole. But for good measure you could add a comment at the end of the first such note: “References to journal articles cite the page range for the article followed by a specific page reference, if any.”

Q. When referring to year ranges, I have an author who insists on using “during 1940–45.” I’ve seen “from 1940 to 1945” and “between 1940 and 1945” and simply “1940–45,” but other prepositions sound awkward in this context. To me, something happens during an argument, the winter, the ’80s, an era. That is, something that has a beginning and an end but where those time points aren’t explicitly stated. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

A. It’s like you say. The preposition “during” (like “in”) makes sense with a single event or period; it doesn’t quite work with a period expressed in terms of a beginning and an end. You can write “during the war,” but “during 1940 to 1945” is awkward. So change “during 1940–45” to “from 1940 to 1945” or “between 1940 and 1945”; the former emphasizes the whole range, the latter can be less specific. Or, as a last resort, add “the years”: “during the years 1940–45.” See CMOS 6.78 for more examples.

Q. What’s the official CMOS stance on double question marks?? I see this a lot in blogs, online magazines, DIY news sites, etc.

A. We don’t have an official stance on double question marks. But to invoke the spirit of CMOS if not the letter, you might keep in mind that any kind of emphasis tends to lose its effectiveness if overdone. This is essentially our stance on exclamation points (see CMOS 6.71), advice that’s equally applicable to doubled question marks.

Q. On social media platforms, where italics are not an option, what do we do with book titles or other titles that would normally be italicized?

A. You have three choices: (1) Let the capital letters speak for themselves: Main Title: Subtitle. (2) Use quotation marks: “Main Title: Subtitle.” (3) Use all caps: MAIN TITLE: SUBTITLE. The first option is the cleanest but doesn’t do a good job especially with one-word titles; the second and third options will delimit the title more definitively. The third option, favored by some publishers (like @RandomHouse), is a convention that dates to the era of typewritten editorial memos (try underscoring titles on a manual typewriter all day long). Quotation marks are maybe the most sensible option, but there’s no settled convention. Choose your favorite and stick with it.