New Questions and Answers

Q. I’m troubled by this sentence: “She combed her hair, brushed her teeth, and was putting on her lipstick when the phone rang.” I think it should be reworded since the list does not have parallel construction. My friend disagrees. Is it correct as is, or is there a simple fix?

A. You are correct. In a series of verb phrases, any auxiliary verb must apply equally to all of the phrases. So that “was”—an auxiliary verb that helps to create the past-progressive tense—is a problem. You can fix it by adding a conjunction to break up the series: “She combed her hair and brushed her teeth and was putting on her lipstick when the phone rang.” CMOS 5.245 covers this issue (minus the lipstick). For more on progressive tenses, see 5.135.

Q. Sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing between a predicate adjective and a past-tense verb being used in a passive-voice construction. For example, in “this dish was leftover,” is “leftover” an adjective, or should it be “was left over,” with “left” being a verb and “over” being an adverb?

A. That’s tricky because “leftover” is both a noun and an adjective. The noun, which is usually plural, would require an article in the singular: a leftover. So the dish was either a leftover (sing. noun) or it was left over (the phrasal verb from which the noun and adjective are derived). Either one will work. It might also be described as a dish of leftovers (pl. noun). But the adjective form really only works before the noun: this leftover dish.

Q. In the following sentence, “Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for forty days before landing,” is the word “landing” a verb form, or a verbal (gerund)? Why?

A. In your example, “landing” is a gerund—a present participle used as a noun. Note that it’s the object of the preposition “before”; only a noun (or a noun phrase) can be the object of a preposition. You can also compare “landing” to the other present participle in your example, “arriving,” which is used not as a noun but as an adjective: the participial phrase “arriving in Venice from infected ports” modifies the noun “Ships.” So “arriving” is a participle but not a gerund. For more on participles and gerunds, see CMOS 5.110–16.

Q. What is correct style: “X and Y axes” or “X- and Y-axes”?

A. In the context of the Cartesian coordinate system, the hyphens are conventional: “X-axis and Y-axis” or “X- and Y-axes.” But unless the axes have been specifically labeled with capital letters, they are usually referred to as the x- and y-axes. In nonmathematical contexts (e.g., to refer to a simple chart or graph), the hyphens are often omitted, as in “x and y axes,” which has the advantage of not requiring a suspended hyphen. Consider your context and be consistent. For suspended hyphens, see CMOS 7.88; for math, see chapter 12.

Q. What combination of hyphens or en dashes is used to punctuate “a four hundred year old shipwreck”?

A. Please, no en dashes! Write “a four-hundred-year-old shipwreck.” When it comes to compound modifiers, en dashes are useful mainly for expressions that include a compound term that’s always left open: “World War II–era shipwrecks.” In your example, there’s no reason “four hundred” can’t be hyphenated and joined to the rest of the modifying phrase by another hyphen; only rarely, if ever, should a compound contain a mix of hyphens and en dashes. See CMOS 6.80 for more details.

Q. Hello, No hyphen after a number and before the word “percent”; that’s the rule, per Chicago. But if part of a longer modifier, would the following be correct? Mike said, “A 15-to-20-percent-a-year increase in sales is what’s expected.” Thank you.

A. That’s tricky, but it doesn’t need to be. Just change “a-year” to “yearly” or “annual” (and edit out the redundant “what’s” while you’re at it). Now you have “a 15 to 20 percent annual increase in sales is expected.” Or you could use an en dash in place of “to”: “a 15–20 percent annual increase . . .” (see our hyphenation guide, under “number + percent”).

Q. Hi, Should the “th” in “49th parallel” be superscript? Thanks.

A. Chicago style is “49th parallel” (or “forty-ninth parallel,” as advocated in CMOS 8.47, if you are spelling out numbers one through one hundred). If you use Microsoft Word, you will get “49th parallel” by default. To change this behavior, go to Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect to turn off the superscript setting for ordinals in AutoFormat and AutoFormat As You Type. Or you can type Ctrl+Z (Command-Z on a Mac) to undo the “correction” each time you type an ordinal.

Q. I cannot find any advice in section 6.99 about how to handle completion of abridged matter when providing the missing letters in brackets. For instance, if the original has “P. Jarnach,” should one write “P.[hilipp] Jarnach” or “P[hilipp] Jarnach”? In other words, should one keep or drop the period? My practice has always been to omit it because it is obvious that there was one and because keeping it would look crowded.

A. In clarifying quoted text, brackets can be used not only to comment on the original text but also to replace it. In this case, the period in the original literally stands for the rest of the abbreviated name and can be replaced (so “P.” becomes “P[hilipp]”). Another option would be to supply the name after the initial, leaving the initial and period intact: “P. [Philipp] Jarnach.” But your practice of replacing the period is more elegant and gets Chicago’s seal of approval. You’ll find an example of this usage at CMOS 14.74.

Q. Dear Editor, I was wondering if you could help me with a style query. I am copyediting a 10-chapter document on fish. The author has asked me to include the scientific name in parentheses after the common name of fish species. It seems to me that repeating this each time the fish is mentioned would make the text bulky (the names are repeated often in each section). Can we mention the scientific name of the fish in parentheses just once in each chapter, or should we keep repeating this style after each species is noted? I hope I’m being clear. . . . Many thanks for your advice on this!

A. Just once is enough. According to Scientific Style and Format (published by the University of Chicago Press and, like CMOS, available online), “If the organism is widely known by a vernacular name, this may be used if, at the first reference to the organism, the vernacular name is presented in clear association with the Latin name.” See SSF, section 22.2.3.2.

December Q&A

Q. Dear CMOS team—a book I am working on as an editor is called (disguised) Sandwich: Imagine the Recipe. Write It Down. Watch It Happen. Are the periods in the subtitle appropriate, or are commas preferred? The periods are driving me crazy, so it would be nice if there were a Chicago rule to say yea or nay.

A. The periods are certainly awkward when it comes to putting that title into a sentence. But for better or for worse, they’re part of the title’s personality, so it’s probably best to leave them as they are. If the title appears midsentence, omit the final period or change it to a comma, depending on the syntax. Try to think of the whole thing as a unit and just avert your eyes.

Q. What font does Chicago require? I thought it was Times New Roman, but perhaps Arial is also okay?

A. CMOS does not state a preference, but for Chicago-style student papers, please see Turabian Tip Sheet 6 (Main Text), which suggests 12 pt. Times New Roman or Calibri or 11 pt. Arial (based on Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 9th edition, which is compatible with The Chicago Manual of Style).

Q. I am preparing an online archive. Many of the items are audio or video recordings. I’ve fruitlessly searched CMOS for the proper way to indicate the total time of a recording—for example, thirty-five minutes and thirty-three seconds. 35 min. 33 sec.? 35m:33s?

A. There are various accepted stylings. At CMOS 14.264 (“Recorded Readings, Lectures, Audiobooks, and the Like”) one example shows the length of a reel-to-reel tape as 1:12:49, and another shows the length of an audiobook as 13 hr., 6 min. An example at CMOS 9.40 (“ISO Style for Time of Day”) suggests the option of putting a zero in front of a single-digit measure of time: 09:27:08.6 = 27 minutes, 8.6 seconds after 9:00 a.m. Based on all these examples, you could use either 00:35:33 (to clarify that it’s 35 minutes, not 35 hours) or 35 min., 33 sec.

Q. Section 11.9 of CMOS (17th ed.) states, “When the title of a work in another language is mentioned in text, an English gloss may follow in parentheses,” and “if the translation has not been published, the English should be capitalized sentence-style . . . and should appear neither in italics nor within quotation marks.” In texts that discuss in detail such a work (say, a literary analysis of a Chinese-language novel for a predominantly English-speaking readership) and where the English gloss is justifiably preferred to the original, should that gloss stay in roman, capitalized sentence-style throughout, or may it carry the features of a published translation (italics or quote marks) for ease of presentation?

A. Yes, in a case like that it makes sense to use italics (or whatever) for the title. You might introduce the style explicitly to ward off the copyeditor—for example: “In the Chinese novel [Chinese characters or transliteration] (hereafter referred to as Plum Tree at Sunset) . . .”

Q. What’s your current recommendation on ending a sentence with a preposition? Current example: “[Nurses bound the] wounds of the men they were taking care of.”

A. Our current recommendation has been current since 1906: there is no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. Please see CMOS 5.180: “The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences or clauses with prepositions is an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. And it is wrong.”

Q. In the sentence “Cane Ridge post office in Van Buren County, Tennessee, was opened in March 1866,” the town name is Cane Ridge and it has a post office. Would you capitalize “Post Office” or leave it lowercase?

A. In your sentence the phrase “Cane Ridge Post Office” looks like a title that should be capped, like Cane Ridge High School. If you had written “The Cane Ridge post office,” then “post office” might be read as a generic and lowercased in the way that you would lowercase “the Cane Ridge gas station” or “the Cane Ridge bus stop.”

Q. Hello. I am writing an essay for history in Chicago style, and when I state a fact I have been putting the number of the citation in parentheses after I have stated it. Is this correct? Example: Abe Lincoln became president in 1861. (5) Or do I need to put it as an exponent following the text?

A. Some citation systems do use parentheses like that to refer to a numbered list of sources, but Chicago style is to use a superscript number that refers to an endnote or footnote containing a citation. Here’s the Turabian Tip Sheet that shows how it looks with footnotes. Please see the “For Students” page at CMOS Shop Talk for answers to many questions on writing a paper and citing sources (scroll to “Chicago Style Basics”). 

Q. When was the Chicago style created? Thanks.

A. Thank you for your interest in Chicago style! At CMOS Online you can read about its history since the university’s founding in 1891 and the printing of the first edition of CMOS in 1906.

Q. I’m a technical editor at an architectural and engineering firm and am working with a project manager (an architect) on a long document with 100+ tables. He insists on putting the table title below the table (below the table notes, which he wants to enclose in a box). He says he doesn’t like how the title above the table looks. CMOS 3.54 refers to “the title, which appears above the table,” but doesn’t give the reason for the placement. I have told the project manager that the overwhelming convention is to put the title above the table, have cited published guidance (e.g., CMOS) to put it above, and have told him that the likely reason is that tables are most often read from top to bottom, but he won’t budge. What is the reason CMOS recommends putting the table title above the table? Maybe he would consider your rationale.

A. Titles of tables are put at the top for the same reason chapter titles and subheadings precede their content: to announce what’s coming. What’s more, the column heads of a table often make sense only when combined with information that’s provided in the title, such as “in dollars per year” or “in miles per gallon.” Hiding that information at the bottom of the table might necessitate adding it to each column head, where space is limited. While there may be instances where a table title at the bottom works just fine (especially if the graphic design emphasizes the title), in general it’s more helpful at the top.

Q. Choosing between in or at: When referring to a specific area on a slide presentation, would you say “in the top right-hand corner” or “at the top right-hand corner”? Are there rules that help one determine when to use in or at?

A. Prepositions are tricky! Even fluent English speakers can disagree on which one to use. CMOS 5.195 presents a list of words that usually go with certain prepositions, but often (as in your sentence) more than one works well. When you’re stuck, look up the preposition in a dictionary and find an example phrase or sentence that’s similar to the one you’re puzzling over.

Q. I’m having a lively debate on Facebook with some friends about how the abbreviation CMOS is pronounced by the fine folks at UCP. Do y’all tend to say “see-moce” or “see-moze” or “see-moss” or “see-mahs”? Thanks!

A. In an in-house poll of editors, marketers, and production staff, “SEE-moss” won by a landslide, followed in an even split by “SEE-mose” and “poTAHto.”