New Questions and Answers

Q. Dear CMOS: In your style guide you write that there is no space between a number and the % symbol. But in math it’s normal to put a space between a number and a symbol. It’s also part of ISO and NIST and other standards. Why don’t you follow these standards?

A. The advice in CMOS to write, for example, “10%” rather than “10 %” (see paragraph 9.18) reflects how people generally use the percent symbol in English-language documents across a wide variety of genres, from fiction to technical reports. (But note that Chicago style for nontechnical settings is to spell it out: “10 percent.”) You’ll find this preference in the AP Stylebook (journalism), the AMA Manual of Style (medicine), and Scientific Style and Format (general sciences), among other guides.

Meanwhile, we are aware that a space is used between a numeral and the percent symbol in the International System of Units (SI), which is official throughout much of the world (see SI Brochure, 9th ed., 5.4.7, where this rule is stated). See CMOS 10.58, where we acknowledge this usage.

The discrepancy between SI, on the one hand, and Chicago and other styles, on the other, may simply be a matter of common usage versus usage in the sciences. It’s worth noting, however, that the SI Brochure, published by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, or BIPM), is primarily a French-language document; though it’s published simultaneously in English, the French text remains official (see SI Brochure, p. 124).

In French, spaces are used before certain marks of punctuation, including colons and semicolons, and between quotation marks (or, in French usage, guillemets) and the text they enclose. And though these conventions aren’t followed in the English version, perhaps they have something to do with the persistence of certain other spaces in the brochure—for example, the one in an expression like “5 °C,” which is commonly rendered in nontechnical contexts without a space.

Editors following Chicago style would support a strict interpretation of SI style in appropriate contexts—or query its use before making any changes. But we don’t all have to write like international scientists (as admirable as such a goal might be), nor does the space carry any special meaning in the sciences or elsewhere. As conventions go, this one is 100% (or 100 %) arbitrary, provided you’ve been consistent.

[Editor’s note: As a reader has kindly pointed out, a space between a number and a percent symbol or other unit represents multiplication. Our original point was simply that (for example) 100% and 100 % are generally intended to mean the same thing.]

Q. Greetings! I edit a lot of romance novels, which generally have a light, informal tone, but the publisher I work with likes to stick to strict Chicago style unless an author objects. I often struggle with constructions like this one, which I found in the Chicago forum: “My wife’s, Deb’s, father passed away on Sunday.” I would write/edit that as “My wife Deb’s father passed away on Sunday,” although the publisher would likely object because strict Chicago style says to put commas around “wife.” But I think that would sound awful. I would appreciate if you could weigh in on this. Thanks!

A. First, direct your publisher to CMOS 6.28, which says that Chicago doesn’t allow a construction like “My wife’s, Deb’s, father.” Then, point them to our recent (December 2020) analysis of the subject at CMOS Shop Talk: “Your Dog[,] Smurf: Understanding Commas with Appositives.” According to that post, so-called spousal commas can be omitted wherever they seem awkward or unnecessary. In sum, if your inclination is to write “My wife Deb’s father,” you have Chicago’s blessing.

Q. Would “Depending on” count as a dangler in “Depending on the weather, the play will be performed outdoors”? If not, why not?

A. We don’t think that’s a true dangler. It is a bit dangly looking; the play itself doesn’t depend on the weather—as a literal reading might suggest.

But consider that the introductory phrase is a sort of idiomatic shorthand for “Depending on how the weather turns out.” Idioms are expressions that are generally understood but don’t necessarily stand up to grammatical analysis. A true dangler is more likely to occur when the participial phrase has a more direct connection to the rest of the sentence:

Acting in the rain, the play showcased the resilience of the performers.

In that sentence, “Acting in the rain” appears (illogically) to modify the play directly rather than the performers. To fix this, rewrite: “Acting in the rain, the play’s performers displayed their resilience.” For more examples, see CMOS 5.115.

Q. “The majority of samples were/was extracted from regular biopsy procedures.” I think I should use “was,” but “were” sounds better to the ear. What is the correct way?

A. Many writers are told to ignore prepositional phrases when deciding on the number of the verb. But this advice doesn’t work in all cases. When the subject is “majority,” and a prepositional phrase with a plural object follows, it’s the object that usually determines the number of the verb. So choose “were.”

But note that “majority” may be either singular or plural even when used alone:

The majority usually wins.

but

The majority were wearing masks.

When in doubt, trust your instincts; if the sense of the sentence suggests a plural verb, use one.

Q. I’ve noticed in some of your Shop Talk posts that source citations are linked from a title instead of from an actual URL. But doesn’t Chicago require listing a URL in citations of online sources?

A. A blog post is different from a research paper or a historical monograph. In the latter formats, it’s generally important to record URLs in such a way that they might be assessed as such—and turned into links for a published version as needed. In an online forum like CMOS Shop Talk—unless the subject is URLs—it’s usually a bit more reader-friendly to take this:

Saller, Carol. “Gender-Neutral Pronouns in Creative Writing.” CMOS Shop Talk, April 20, 2021. https://cmosshoptalk.com/2021/04/20/gender-neutral-pronouns-in-creative-writing/.

and turn it into this:

Saller, Carol. “Gender-Neutral Pronouns in Creative Writing.” CMOS Shop Talk, April 20, 2021.

Readers can follow the link in that second version without having to face an eighty-character string whose main function is to tell a network where to go.

Q. Although CMOS is quite clear about the care one must take when quoting lyrics and poems that are still under copyright, I cannot find a single example of how to cite them once that care has been taken. Help a girl out? Muchas merci!

A. You’re facing two possible scenarios: (1) The owner of the copyright has given you formal permission to quote from a particular song or poem. In that case, they may specify the wording they want you to use when giving them credit. Such wording should be followed within reason (see CMOS 3.32). (2) You’re quoting no more than a word or two or simply mentioning or alluding to the song or poem or have otherwise determined that you don’t need permission (see CMOS 4.84–94). In that case, you simply cite the song or poem as you normally would.

A song can usually be mentioned in the text (with attribution) rather than formally cited; if you need something more formal, you’ll find examples at CMOS 14.263. A poem can likewise simply be mentioned in the text. But if it’s part of a collection (as in a book or on a website), cite the larger work. For example, you might mention “Still Life,” by Emma Hine, while citing Stay Safe (Louisville, KY: Sarabande Books, 2021)—the book of poems by Hine where that one is included.

Q. In your hyphenation guide, adjectival phrases are addressed: “Hyphenated before a noun; usually open after a noun.” Would the adjectival phrase “one-on-one” apply? The dictionary lists it only with hyphens, but I’m dealing with a sentence where it seems the hyphens would be unnecessary: “Coaches are available to meet one-on-one.”

A. In your example, “one-on-one” functions as an adverb rather than as an adjective (it modifies the verb to meet). And in general, a phrase that’s listed in Merriam-Webster with hyphens retains its hyphens if used as an adverb. Compare “day by day.” That expression, which is listed in Merriam-Webster without hyphens, would be hyphenated only as an adjective before a noun. For example, you would “take things day by day” (adv.) but “make a day-by-day assessment” (adj.).

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”).