New Questions and Answers

Q. Is there any chance that “am” and “pm” will become acceptable as correct forms of “a.m.” and “p.m.”?

A. There are six ways to write the abbreviations for ante meridiem (before noon) and post meridiem (after noon):

All caps with periods: 10 A.M., 10 P.M.
All caps without periods: 10 AM, 10 PM
Small caps with periods: 10 A.M., 10 P.M.
Small caps without periods: 10 AM, 10 PM
Lowercase with periods: 10 a.m., 10 p.m.
Lowercase without periods: 10 am, 10 pm

Each of these—including “am” and “pm”—is a legitimate choice. For nearly a century, Chicago’s preferred form was the third: small capital letters with periods. This preference, however, applied only to published documents (among other factors, small capitals weren’t an option on typewriters).

When we changed our preference to “a.m.” and “p.m.” (in 2003, with the publication of CMOS 15), the growth of computers in writing and publishing played a role: small caps require extra steps to apply, and they don’t always translate well across applications (when they’re even available). We could have flipped a coin and settled on all-caps “AM” and “PM” (but not “A.M.” and “P.M.”; Chicago style now omits periods in abbreviations that include two or more capital letters). When we instead chose lowercase “a.m.” and “p.m.,” we liked the fact that they’re unambiguous (“AM” and “PM” both have a number of other meanings), and we hoped the periods would help readers recognize in any context that these are abbreviations, not words.

But if you don’t like the periods, don’t fret: Merriam-Webster labels “am” and “pm” as British variants, so you’re hardly alone in your preference. If you’re being published, however, be prepared to defer to your publisher’s house style, whatever that may be.

Q. I found nothing in the Manual regarding this, and maybe there is no actual standard on this topic. My English-speaking colleagues capitalize the word following “Dear” in a group letter—for example, “Dear Colleagues,” or “Dear Teachers.” Is the capital necessary? Thank you for your help.

A. You’ll still find “forms of address” in the back of printed editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. And though the purpose of that section is to help you address someone like a pope or a judge with a traditionally proper, respectful formula, you can glean an answer to your question there. Words that would otherwise be lowercase—like “sir” and “madam”—are capitalized in an address: “Dear Sir,” “Dear Madam.” For one thing, these words stand in for a person’s name. And capital letters are generally more formal than lowercase, making them a natural choice for something as conventional as the greeting at the head of a letter or email.

The Gregg Reference Manual, which specializes in business documents, confirms this choice. For a letter to more than one person, the tenth edition (published in 2005) advises “Dear Friends (Colleagues, Members, or some other appropriate collective term).” So unless you’re being casual—or writing according to a tradition where lowercase is the norm—prefer capitalization for words like “Colleagues” and “Teachers” in your salutations.

Q. Can you clarify when commas should be used with an “or” phrase? For example, should it be “Table salt, also known as sodium chloride or NaCl” or “Table salt, also known as sodium chloride, or NaCl”?

A. When “or” is used to introduce an equivalent rather than an alternative, a comma is strictly correct. Compare the following examples:

To get to the stadium, you can take a train or a bus.

To get to the stadium, you can take the elevated train, or el.

In the first example, “a bus” is an alternative to “a train”; it is not another way of writing “a train.” A comma is therefore unnecessary. In the second example, “el” is equivalent to “elevated train,” so the comma is correct. Still, such a comma may be omitted in certain cases, provided the meaning remains clear. You may want to do this, for example, to avoid comma clutter in text that mentions more than a few such equivalents. In an example like yours, which presents not two equivalent terms but three—all in a single sentence—the comma before “or” remains strictly correct. But it’s a little fussy and could be omitted if done so consistently.

Q. When listing “several citations in a single note,” the example given in CMOS 14.57 shows an “and” before the last citation. However, in a CMOS Shop Talk post with an example of two citations in one note, there is no “and” after the semicolon. Please clarify if Chicago style is to use “and” before the last citation (1) when there are two citations and (2) when there are several citations.

A. The “and” is optional in either case. Think of a footnote as a sentence. It’s punctuated like one, though typically it’s presented in the form of a fragment. In other words, this:

1. Author Name, Title of Book (Facts of Publication), 33.

is equivalent to this:

1. See Author Name, Title of Book (Facts of Publication), 33.

That “See” in the second example, which is understood in the first, makes explicit the fact that a note is an imperative sentence. When additional sources are added, “and” may be similarly understood:

1. [See] Author Name, Title of Book (Facts of Publication), 33; [and (or “and see”)] Another Author, Another Title (Different Facts of Publication), 121–22.

Though it can save space and reduce repetition to omit these words, there’s no reason they can’t be included if desired—or expanded on as needed:

1. See Author Name, Title of Book (Facts of Publication), 33. For a different perspective, see Another Author, Another Title (Different Facts of Publication), 121–22.

Back to “and.” If in doubt, add it; the conjunction can help readers identify the end of one source and the beginning of another. But try to be consistent in your approach across any single document.

Q. CMOS 6.81 says en dashes can be used to set off campuses of universities, as in “University of Wisconsin–Madison.” When abbreviating the university such that it’s one word, would it make sense to change the en dash to a hyphen? For example, would you write “UW-Madison” with a hyphen because “UW” is now one word?

A. Though either decision could be defended, we prefer to leave en dashes intact in the abbreviated forms of names that include one when spelled out. In other words, the dash survives the shortening of the words without itself undergoing a reduction in length: “UW–Madison.” This decision will lend an appearance of consistency to documents that feature both the abbreviated and spelled-out forms.

Q. If the word “god” is capitalized only when it is a proper name, why would you capitalize it in the expression “Oh my god!” unless you know that the speaker is referring to the specific deity worshipped by Christians and other monotheists? Does Chicago style uppercase or lowercase “Oh my god!”?

A. In general, when “god” is used nonliterally (as in your example), or when the reference is to plural “gods” (or to one god among many), lowercase g is the better choice; as your question suggests, a capital G is normally reserved for literal references to the supreme being (or Supreme Being, when referring to a specific God) worshiped according to any of a number of monotheistic religions. But religion is as varied as it is personal; some authors will prefer to capitalize “god” even in apparently nonliteral references. And some may prefer plural “Gods.” Editors should therefore try to confirm an author’s preference before making any wholesale changes. For some additional considerations, see CMOS 8.91.

Q. In a footnote that starts with a superscript note number, is there a space between the number and the text of the note? Thanks!

A. There is if you let Microsoft Word or Google Docs do its thing. And if you’re smart enough to do that—in other words, if you already know to take advantage of the automated notes feature in your word processor—you might as well not interfere, particularly as there’s no apparent option to change this default behavior in either application. Consider also that such spaces may help readers identify footnotes more easily (which is why we use them at CMOS Shop Talk). But either choice, space or no space, is acceptable in a manuscript. Publishers who follow Chicago style will have no trouble adapting either one to a regular number (not a superscript) followed by a period and a space (see CMOS 14.24).

January Q&A

Q. How should the symbols N2 and O2 be pluralized in Chicago style? N2’s and O2’s or italicized symbols with no apostrophes?

A. To channel Bartleby (Melville’s fictional nineteenth-century scrivener): we prefer not to write chemical formulas as plurals; nor would we apply italics (as we would for ordinary letters as letters; see CMOS 7.64). We’d advise rewording instead (e.g., “two N2 molecules”). But if you absolutely must express a molecule as a plural, an apostrophe will help make it clear that the s isn’t part of the formula. It may not be precisely Chicago style, but readers will know what you mean—which is the goal of all good editing.

Q. I am confused about the rules given for spelling out centuries. In CMOS 9.32, “the 1800s” is given as an example, but paragraph 8.71 has “the nineteen hundreds.” These examples seem contradictory.

A. That example in chapter 8 is intended only to illustrate that when a decade or century is written in words, such an expression isn’t capitalized. Our usual preference would be for numerals (“1800s”), but either form is acceptable (choose one and be consistent). Note that Chicago considers “1800s” to be equivalent to “nineteenth century”—which also happens to be the more common way of expressing a century in words. (Under Chicago’s alternative rule for numbers, according to which numerals are used for numbers greater than nine, it would be “19th century”; see CMOS 9.3.) We should also note that in Chicago style, “1800s” and “1900s” refer to the whole century, not just the first decade. For more, see our post on decades at CMOS Shop Talk.

Q. Hello: When using headline-style capitalization (CMOS 8.159), does a participial preposition (CMOS 5.175) appear in lowercase or uppercase? Thanks very much.

A. Chicago lowercases all prepositions in titles, including words that aren’t always prepositions. For example, we’d write The World according to Garp. Most so-called participial prepositions (verb forms that can also function as prepositions)—according (to), assuming, barring, concerning, considering, during, notwithstanding, owing (to), provided, regarding, respecting, and speaking (of), among others—rarely appear in titles of works. And the ones that occur most often (like “according to,” “considering,” and “during”) normally function as prepositions, which makes the job of an editor following Chicago style a little easier. (A title like “Teachers According More Time to Students,” in which “According” functions as a verb and is therefore capitalized, would be hard to find.) Note that other styles capitalize prepositions based on length alone. AP and APA, for example, capitalize words of more than three letters, including prepositions; Chicago and MLA lowercase all prepositions regardless of length.

Q. How does one cite a book with a bilingual title—e.g., a book where the full title is presented in both German and English? Thank you very much.

A. Use either an equals sign or a slash between the two forms of the title (with a space before and after the equals sign or slash); otherwise, such a source would be cited like any other work of its type. But if the source itself does not use a slash or other mark between the two titles, an equals sign should be preferred:

Appelbaum, Stanley, ed. and trans. Five Great German Short Stories = Fünf deutsche Meistererzählungen. A Dual-Language Book. New York: Dover, 1993.

Note that sentence-style capitalization is used for the German title, according to which German adjectives (like deutsche) are lowercase (see CMOS 11.6). Also note the series title in the example (“A Dual-Language Book”), which is optional (see CMOS 14.123).

Q. When referring to a decade, do you use “was” or “were”? “The 1780s was [were?] an important period in history.”

A. Aside from certain quantities (“ninety dollars is a lot of money”), plural numbers usually take plural verbs: for example, “The ’80s were great!” To be perfectly correct, then, avoid the lure of the singular “period” in the predicate and use “were”: “The 1780s were an important period in history.” Compare “The decade of the 1780s was an important period in history.” See also CMOS 5.141 (on false attraction to the predicate).

Q. I am editing a series about the Communist Party of Italy in the early 1900s. My question is specifically whether to capitalize “communist” when used as an adjective. For instance, when the work references workers who are sympathetic to communism, should I refer to them as “Communist workers” or “communist workers”? Similarly, would I capitalize the C in the following phrases: “communist cells”; “communist vanguard”; “communist program”?

A. You could draw a bright line and use a capital C only to refer to the emerging Italian Communist Party and its members and adherents. The philosophy or program of communism and those who are sympathetic to it or otherwise identify with it would get a lowercase c. A “Communist,” then, would be a party member, whereas “communist workers”—and “communist cells,” “communist vanguard,” and “communist program”—would refer to workers (or cells etc.) who espouse communism, whether or not any of these instances also imply party membership or affiliation. If this distinction seems difficult to maintain or unhelpful to readers (perhaps the series also discusses the program of Communism that became official in the Soviet Union), you might apply a capital C to all references to communism, regardless of how the word is being used. See CMOS 8.66 for some additional considerations.

Q. When an author speaks of a particularly difficult experience with the following metaphor, how should it be styled: “category 5 storm,” “category five storm,” “Category 5 storm,” “Category Five storm”?

A. Many proper nouns and adjectives lose their capital letters when they are demoted from literal to figurative use. So a French restaurant in Detroit might serve french fries (not literally from France). Or Thomas More’s Utopia might inspire utopian dreams. But for maximum impact, some metaphors are best expressed in literal terms. If you’re going to compare something to a numbered category in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, it will be more effective if you parrot official style and retain the capital C (and the numeral 5).

Q. In formal writing, it is always recommended not to use contractions. But what about the expression “what’s more”?

A. We wouldn’t say always. In writing that is both formal and technical, contractions are still generally discouraged (as you will find, for example, in the latest editions of Scientific Style and Format and the style manual of the American Medical Association). But in nontechnical contexts, any rule against using contractions works against writing that sounds natural and is therefore easy (or at least pleasant) to read. Chicago therefore doesn’t prohibit them. What’s more, the first edition (published in 1906, in the era of spats) included a few (and not only as examples demonstrating how an apostrophe is used). Here’s one: “Don’t stultify yourself and discredit the office by asking foolish questions on the proof” (p. 99). That advice might just as well apply to contractions: “Don’t stultify yourself by avoiding the apostrophe.” As for the phrase “what’s more,” if the apostrophe bothers you (or if it’s forbidden by your style guide), try “furthermore” instead.

Q. Books that can be read aloud are known as “read-alouds.” Should this term be hyphenated or not?

A. Whenever you can’t find the answer to a specific hyphenation question, an analogy can be your friend. In this case, we would tend to hyphenate “read-alouds” on the principle that it is grammatically similar in construction to the hyphenated noun form “sing-along” (the plural of which would be “sing-alongs”). Not only does “sing-along” describe a similar activity—it also has an entry in Merriam-Webster.