New Questions and Answers

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.

December Q&A

Q. When writing a name that has a mix of capital and lowercase letters, such as “LeBron James,” in all caps, should it be written as “LeBRON JAMES” or “LEBRON JAMES”?

A. We get this question a lot (and we’ve answered it in the past). When a question keeps popping up, that’s usually because it concerns an editorial gray area for which there is no definitive answer. The problem in this case is that applying all caps is bound to obscure any detail that depends on a mix of capitals and lowercase. For example, the meaning of a headline that reads “UK to help US” is clear. But in all caps, ambiguity threatens: “UK TO HELP US.” In “LeBron,” the independent role of “Le” as a particle (an article or preposition used with a name) is overwritten when it becomes “LEBRON.”

The verdict? Prefer “LEBRON.” Even the most attentive editor can’t promise to account for every potential all-caps scenario in every document and make the necessary adjustments—for example, by applying a lowercase letter (LeBRON) or a small capital (LEBRON) or a space (LE BRON) or punctuation (“UK to help U.S.”). Life’s too short—and too filled with more important matters—without adding that to your workflow. (Though we would advise rewording that UK/US headline.)

Not that you can’t make a one-time intervention in a headline or other prominent place if you have the authority to do so. But if you need confirmation that it’s okay to stick with all caps, check out this detail from the front of the 2020 LeBron James “I Promise” Wheaties cereal box:

Q. I am curious why CMOS hyphenates “president-elect” but leaves “vice president elect” open. Would “vice president–elect” (with an en dash) not be more consistent? And why is “president-elect” hyphenated even when the term doesn’t precede a noun?

A. Good questions. The word “elect” is an adjective that’s being used postpositively, or after the noun. A postpositive adjective sometimes joins to the noun it modifies with a hyphen (e.g., “knight-errant”), but in most cases it does not (“professor emeritus,” “surgeon general,” “president pro tempore”).

Merriam-Webster includes an entry for “president-elect” as a noun, which is why we hyphenate that term (the hyphen may help prevent a misreading of “elect” as a verb), but it doesn’t include a corresponding entry for “vice president” with elect. Our reluctance to require an en dash with a lowercase open compound (see CMOS 6.80) factored into our decision to continue to leave that term open as a noun.

We also looked at government documents. In the Twentieth Amendment to the US Constitution, one of the few such documents that uses the terms, you’ll find “President elect” and “Vice President elect” (no hyphens). Another official document, the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, has “President-elect” and “Vice-President-elect” (one hyphen and two, respectively), but “Vice President” (without a hyphen) when “elect” isn’t tacked on. Neither document uses these as titles before a name.

But in the real world, these terms are used as titles before a name, and had we shown examples of this usage in our hyphenation table at CMOS 7.89 (or under “Titles and Offices” in chapter 8), we would have advised either two hyphens (“vice-president-elect So-and-So”) or an en dash (“vice president–elect So-and-So”). But, had we capitalized the term as a formal title, the en dash would have prevailed (though “elect,” which isn’t part of the title, would remain lowercase): “Vice President–elect Kamala Harris.” (For our preference for lowercase in a phrase like “former vice president Joe Biden” versus uppercase in a phrase like “Vice President Pence,” see CMOS 8.21.)

Uppercase or lower, the arc of editorial history appears to be bending toward greater use of the en dash, as en dash–literate questions like yours continue to demonstrate. Will they play a bigger role in future editions of CMOS? Perhaps we should take a vote.

Q. If you quote a sentence that includes an APA-style reference in parentheses, do you quote it with the reference, or would you cut it out?

A. Unlike a superscript note reference number in the text, which is meaningless without the text of the note, an APA-style text reference—for example, “(Smith, 2020)” in APA or “(Smith 2020)” in Chicago’s similar author-date style—includes at least some substantive information. So keep the parenthetical reference in your quoted text. Readers may not be able to decipher the reference without tracking down the original (with the help of your own source citation), but they’ll have an easier time locating the quoted text if you leave it intact. For more details, see CMOS 13.7, item 5.

Q. Hello CMOS! A book I am copyediting contains a text message inside quotation marks (as in, My friend then texted me: “Have you read XYZ?”). The text message in question contains a book title. Would you set the book title in italics, or leave it in roman, as it presumably was in the original text message? Thanks for your help!

A. For the text message to be fully believable, it needs to feel like a text message. So leave the italics out. If you’re afraid of ambiguity, use the narrative to supply the missing context (“She was referring to the book by So-and-So”). But in ordinary fictional dialogue, apply the italics to help your readers; it’s understood that people don’t speak in edited text, so you don’t have to worry about authenticity. For some additional considerations, see “Formatting Text Messages in Fiction” at CMOS Shop Talk.

Q. When is the word that unnecessary? Here’s an example: “She manages the team, making sure that everyone is in the right role and that everything is of the highest quality.” Is it okay to remove those thats?

A. More than a few grammatically nebulous constructions are actually cases of omission—or what’s known as a grammatical ellipsis. In the following examples, the brackets supply information that would be understood from context or otherwise:

[It’s amazing] How ugly [that rock is]!

She’s taller than I [am]. (But see CMOS 5.46.)

Why [did you do that]?

Thousands rushed to serve him in victory; in defeat, none [of them did].

Jasper missed her and she [missed] him.

[Would you like] One lump [of sugar] or two [lumps of sugar]?

We made sure [that] everyone was happy.

The man [who is] in the moon isn’t real.

All those sentences make grammatical sense without the bracketed words that might complete them. In some cases the elliptical construction is preferable (as in the proverbial “man in the moon”). The “rule,” if we were to state one, would be simple: Any omission that sounds right and does not obscure or alter the intended meaning is an option.

Your example works well enough either way. If you favor economy, delete the thats. If you think they provide a bit of useful emphasis, keep them. If you’re unsure, try reading both versions of the sentence aloud. For more on relative pronouns and grammatical ellipses, see CMOS 5.226 and 5.229. (For the punctuation mark known as an ellipsis, see CMOS 13.50–58.)

Q. I know an em dash marks an interruption in dialogue:

“I thought I might—”
“Might what?” she demanded.

But what happens if the same person speaks after the interruption? For example, “Can you bring me a— socket wrench, is that what you call it?” Is that space after the em dash correct?

A. Your space after the dash does makes a little bit of sense—but it doesn’t quite work. Because even if there is some logic to it, will people read that space as you intended it? Very possibly not, and definitely not if the dash happens to fall at the end of a line—as dashes are prone to do. Any editorial decision that is likely to be missed by readers or obscured by context—or that could be lost if quoted (for example, by someone following a style that puts a space before and after a dash, which would render your example meaningless)—is one that should be reconsidered.

So, either delete the space:

“Can you bring me a—socket wrench, is that what you call it?”

Or, if you want to somehow convey the extra pause or break that the space is trying to communicate, mark the interruption in some other way:

“Can you bring me a . . . socket wrench—is that what you call it?”

“Can you bring me a—what do you call it?—a socket wrench?”

“Can you bring me a”—he hesitated—“a socket wrench? Is that what you call it?”

In sum, be wary of any editorial innovation that relies on a mere space to get across the intended meaning. It has a good chance of being lost in translation.

Q. In a novel with a contents page, where would the list of major characters be placed? Before the contents or after?

Q. Working on a nonfiction book: Should the acknowledgments go before the bibliography or after?

A. [Editor’s note: This answer applies to both of the questions above.] The conventional order of elements in a book is determined by a combination of tradition and logic. Logic dictates that chapter 10 must follow chapter 9. Tradition is less rigid. In books published in English, any section that provides a key to navigating the text, starting with the table of contents, is traditionally placed in the front matter. (By contrast, French publishers, for example, usually put the table of contents in the back.) Items that provide commentary or supporting information generally go in the back matter. These include glossaries, endnotes, bibliographies, and the like.

A dramatis personae, which both introduces and provides a key to the people in the narrative, fits best in the front matter, either just after the table of contents, where it would be listed first, or immediately before the beginning of the text if other front matter intervenes. Acknowledgments, on the other hand, may be placed either in the front matter—as a standalone item or as part of an author’s preface—or in the back. When the acknowledgments go in the back, it works well to place them immediately after the final chapter, where they function as a sort of epilogue.

CMOS 1.4 outlines the order of elements in a book; most books won’t have all these elements, but the order applies to both fiction and non-. And it’s flexible, to a point. For example, unless you’re a practicing surrealist, you should try to keep any numbered chapters in their proper order.