New Questions and Answers

Q. Recently the New York Times published an opinion piece by Mary Mann, a librarian and writer. In it she wrote, “In the past I’ve had to remind student patrons that you can’t cite Wikipedia on research papers.” Is that still the case?

A. Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is a tertiary source. A tertiary source synthesizes information in secondary sources to provide a summary for general readers about a topic. Secondary sources would include something like an article in a literary journal that analyzes the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses and the Odyssey, in turn, are primary sources. Secondary and tertiary sources also usually refer to other secondary and tertiary sources in support of their own arguments.

So whenever you cite Wikipedia, you are citing a summary of mostly secondary (and some tertiary) sources on a topic. And for many readers, this thirdhand evidence won’t be enough to prove your point.

Summaries are incredibly useful, as the popularity of Wikipedia attests. They save us the trouble of doing our own research. For example, when something happens to a celebrity, or you need a historical overview of the Macintosh computer or a sense of the emerging consensus over climate change, start with Wikipedia. You can even tell your cousin what Wikipedia said about So-and-So’s untimely passing. But don’t write a paper that cites Wikipedia citing the New York Times and five other sources quoting the late actor’s rep saying it was due to “natural causes.” Your responsibility as a researcher is the same as Wikipedia’s: you must discover the facts for yourself—and prove them by citing them.

The good news is that you don’t have to credit Wikipedia if you use it to get leads on a subject. Wikipedia’s own source citations (and source citations in general) are a gift that anyone can follow.

Not that you can never cite Wikipedia. You can—for example, in a research paper that tracks gender bias in Wikipedia articles. But if you’re turning to Wikipedia in search of the truth, pay attention to the sources cited in its articles. Those, and not Wikipedia itself, are where the information comes from. Meanwhile, if you find something wrong in Wikipedia’s page on Sichuan peppers? Follow Mary Mann’s example and fix it yourself. Don’t forget to cite your sources.

Q. Should the names of houses be italicized as you would the name of a boat? What about if someone names their car?

A. A house, no. A car, maybe. For example, you wouldn’t use italics to refer to the White House or Graceland or Big Pink (the names of houses located respectively in Washington, DC; Memphis, TN; and West Saugerties, NY). But that last name, unlike the first two, is not all that well known, so quotation marks might be helpful for the first mention:

Several of the album’s songs were composed at “Big Pink,” the house in West Saugerties. . . . Before returning to Big Pink . . .

In general, however, the rule is simple: the names of houses, like other place-names, are capitalized but not italicized.

On the other hand, if you name your Subaru or Ford something other than Forester or F-150 (see CMOS 8.117), you could pretend it’s a boat and use italics à la Enterprise, a name shared by various military vessels and a series of fictional Star Trek spaceships (see CMOS 8.116). But those are official. Your pet name for your car is unlikely to merit such treatment except jokingly:

Cecil, my prized Celica, is in the shop.

Sorry to hear about Cecil. May he feel better soon.

Q. Should national anthems—for example, La Marseillaise—be set in quotes?

A. A national anthem is a song by any other name, but with more pomp and circumstance. So whether it’s “La Marseillaise” or “O Canada”—or “March of the Volunteers,” a song written in 1934 and later adapted as the anthem of the People’s Republic of China—put it in quotation marks.

Q. How do you show emphasis (and not with capital letters) in “thought” that’s already in italics?

A. If you must put thoughts in italics (italics are just one option among several), emphasis is usually shown by “reverse italics,” like this:

Does this mean no more waffles, like ever? That’s bad, very bad, I thought.

But you probably wouldn’t have written to us if regular type in an otherwise italic environment worked well as emphasis. Compare the same text but in reverse:

Does this mean no more waffles, like ever? That’s bad, very bad, I thought.

Readers are likely to miss the regular text in the first example (or to notice it but not understand it as emphatic); they are less likely to miss the italics in the second. But if you really want the words to stand out, try bold text or underscore (if your publisher allows it):

. . . That’s bad, very bad, I thought.

. . . That’s bad, very bad, I thought.

Underscore may be the better option. Thanks to the legacy of typewriters (and handwriting), it’s already understood as an alternative to italics. Bold, on the other hand, tends to jump off the page wherever it occurs, which could be either distracting or perfect, depending on the desired effect.

In sum, you have several options, among which is the option to use regular text for thought, reserving italics for emphasis.

Q. Is the example below correct? For the sake of consistency, I want to spell out the thousands (e.g., “470 thousand” instead of “470,000”), but I’ve never seen this done and don’t think it’s right. Is there a way to keep thousands and millions consistent within the same sentence? “We waste 470,000 heads of lettuce, 1.2 million tomatoes, 2.4 million potatoes, 750,000 loaves of bread, 1.2 million apples, 555,000 bananas, 1 million cups of milk, and 450,000 eggs every day.”

A. Consistency isn’t always a realistic goal with numbers. For example, no one would write a sentence like this one: “We counted 5.3 million fish in the year 2 thousand, but somehow I managed to catch only 3.4 tens.” In your example, “470 thousand” would be almost as intelligible as “470,000,” but the usual convention is to reserve a mix of words and numerals for millions and above—a cutoff designed to prevent strings of digits that are longer than their verbal counterparts would be (see CMOS 9.8).

Q. Hi! Hope you all are well. Please help me. I can’t find an answer anywhere. Does CMOS recommend “Gen Zers” or “Gen Zs”?

A. Merriam-Webster includes an entry for “Gen Z” as a noun. Under “Other Words from Gen Z,” the entry lists “Gen Zer or Gen-Zer” and “Gen Zers or Gen-Zers” (“or” means the hyphenated variants are equally common, but in such cases Chicago normally advises choosing the first-listed form). You won’t, however, find “Gen Zs”—which you can therefore assume occurs only as the plural form of “Gen Z,” as in more than one Generation Z (see CMOS 7.15 for styling the plurals of letters). For members of Generation Z, then, write “Gen Zers.” Ditto for their predecessors: “Gen Yers” and “Gen Xers.”

Q. Searching through CMOS, I can’t determine if this sentence is properly capitalized: “It is the sign that sat squarely on the Earth’s eastern horizon when you were born.” (It’s for an astrological publication.) Specifically, should the words earth, eastern, and horizon be capitalized, and is the “the” before Earth correct? Thank you.

A. Considered as a planet among other planets and bodies in our own solar system, “Earth” may be capitalized. In such contexts, “Sun” and “Moon” may also be capitalized, and “Earth” often appears without the definite article—like Mars and the other planets, but unlike the Sun and the Moon:

The Moon is much closer to Earth than the Sun is to Mercury.

If you (or your publication) prefer instead to write “the Earth” (as in your example)—and to use lowercase for the sun and the moon—that’s okay too. Just be consistent.

Questions like yours wouldn’t come up if not for the fact that there are many moons and suns besides our own, and the earth to us is both a planet and the substance on its surface (and the model for other earthlike planets). In ordinary prose—or in any generic reference that doesn’t depend on the identity of a specific astronomical body among other such objects, or where our own earth and sun and moon may be assumed—lowercase is almost always appropriate:

We learned that the moon is round, the earth is flat, and the sun is a golden orb.

Why on earth would anyone under the sun believe the moon is made of cheese?

Ganymede is Jupiter’s largest moon.

Circumbinary planets are planets that orbit two suns.

As for “eastern horizon,” that’s a relatively generic description, so lowercase is your best option. See CMOS 8.140 and 8.141 for a few additional considerations.

October Q&A

Q. It just occurred to me that “Achilles’ heel” is wrong, according to CMOS 7.17. It should be “Achilles’s heel,” right?

A. Technically, yes: “Achilles’ heel” is contrary to Chicago style, which would call for “Achilles’s heel.” CMOS 7.19 addresses the issue directly: “Classical proper names of two or more syllables that end in an eez sound form the possessive in the usual way (though when these forms are spoken, the additional s is generally not pronounced).” For example, “Euripides’s tragedies.” But like Achilles’s mother, we failed to cover “Achilles’ heel,” a term that therefore remains vulnerable to stylistic ambiguity. Thankfully, Merriam-Webster is there to shield us from the arrows of editorial uncertainty. We defer to that resource and consider “Achilles’ heel” as an established exception to Chicago style.

Q. We are adding Indigenous Peoples’ Day to our company calendar. Is the apostrophe appropriate, as with Presidents’ Day, or no apostrophe, as in Veterans Day?

A. According to CMOS 7.27, “Although terms denoting group ownership or participation sometimes appear without an apostrophe (i.e., as an attributive rather than a possessive noun), Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not officially include one.” So, absent any officially sanctioned spelling for the holiday, we would write “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

If you compare named days that involve an irregular plural, you’ll see that it’s not a simple matter of possession versus attribution. There’s a Children’s Day and a Women’s Day and a Men’s Day—but try that without the possessive (Men Day?). Hence Chicago’s preference for the possessive.

As for “Presidents’ Day,” according to Title V, section 6103, of the United States Code (which covers federal holidays and is usually cited as 5 U.S.C. § 6103), that holiday is still officially Washington’s Birthday but has been expanded to honor other presidents. “Presidents’ Day” demonstrates Chicago style, legal name or not. Veterans Day is also named in Title V, without the apostrophe, and because it’s official, that’s how we style it when referring to the national holiday in the United States.

Which brings us back to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. If you’re following Chicago style, use the apostrophe. If you’re following Associated Press style (and the AP Stylebook), leave it out. But where the holiday is official (as it now is in many states in the US), follow whatever the official style might be. For example, in North Carolina it’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but in Maine it’s Indigenous Peoples Day (no apostrophe).

Q. Hello! What is the preferred formatting when calling something something else? (Sorry, that was confusing.) For example, in the sentence “People from Minnesota are called Minnesotans,” or the sentence “We call it baseball,” would the words “Minnesotans” and “baseball” need any special formatting, such as italics or quotes? I wasn’t sure if the rule for “words as words” applies in this case, and I’ve struggled to find a definitive answer elsewhere. Thank you!

A. CMOS doesn’t discuss this problem specifically, but thanks to your question we now have a name for it: “calling something something else.” If we had to formulate a rule, we might say that italics or quotation marks are usually unnecessary for words introduced with a form of the verb to call but may be used to highlight the word or phrase as a key term. In CMOS, you’ll mostly see an absence of italics or quotation marks after call: “The front of the leaf, the side that lies to the right in an open book, is called the recto” (CMOS 1.5). Or “The author’s own statement about a work is usually called a preface” (CMOS 1.41).

But starting with the seventeenth edition, we made an exception in chapter 5, where we agreed to italicize the names of grammatical concepts (many of which are unfamiliar even to editors):

Pronouns with antecedents are called anaphoric pronouns. (Anaphora refers to the use of a word or phrase to refer to or replace one used earlier.) (CMOS 5.28)

Sets of word forms by which a language differentiates the functions that a word performs in a sentence are called the word’s cases. (CMOS 5.35)

But here’s an interesting case of a different kind:

We is sometimes used by an individual who is speaking for a group . . . This latter use is called “the editorial we.” (CMOS 5.47)

Outside of chapter 5 we would have written that it’s called the editorial we (as we did in chapter 5 in CMOS 16)—italics for we as a word, but otherwise no special treatment for the phrase as a whole. For the sake of consistency, however, we put the phrase in quotation marks. (Alternatively, we could have written that it’s called the editorial “we”—reversing the roles of italics and quotation marks.)

In sum, consider whether you are focusing on the word or phrase as a word or phrase, or simply offering a description. Then be consistent about it—and watch out for tricky cases.

Q. When breaking dialogue with narration (where the verb used is not describing speaking), how should the punctuation appear? “Yes, this is fine,” she stood up. “Please go ahead.” Or should it be: “Yes, this is fine.” She stood up. “Please go ahead.” What if it were “nodded” instead of “stood up”? What about in: “Look,” she pointed to the road, “a blue car.” Do we need to add “said” (or similar verbs) here? Thanks for your time.

A. We’ve seen questions like this before. They usually come down to one thing: Can a person do something other than speak or write their words or communicate them using a signed language? In other words, can you smile the word hello or nod to someone in English? If you agree that people do not literally stand or nod or point—or smile—their words, structure your dialogue accordingly:

“Yes, this is fine,” she said, standing up. “Please go ahead.”

or

“Yes, this is fine.” She stood up. “Please go ahead.”

Nodding, however, comes closer to speech than standing does, and some editors would allow a construction like this one:

“Yes, this is fine,” she nodded. “Please go ahead.”

This leeway might be extended to smiling and shrugging and similar gestures that play a supporting role for many people when they talk. Pointing is also a gesture, but many editors would draw the line before allowing that verb as a dialogue tag. Instead, they’d edit your example to maintain a distinction between speaking and pointing:

“Look,” she said, pointing to the road, “a blue car.”

or

“Look.” She pointed to the road. “A blue car.”

or

“Look”—she pointed to the road—“a blue car.”

Opinions vary. Editors can help by asking an author first before making wholesale changes.

Q. What is the convention for abbreviating thousands, millions, and billions in monetary amounts? I have seen K, M, and B, but I’ve also seen millions represented by MM and thousands represented by M. Thanks!

A. You’ve identified two commonly used conventions in finance, one derived from Greek and the other from Latin, but neither one is standard.

Starting with the second convention, M is used for amounts in the thousands and MM for amounts in the millions (usually without a space between the number and the abbreviation—e.g., $150M for $150,000 and $150MM for $150 million). This convention overlaps with the conventions for writing roman numerals, according to which a thousand is represented by M (from mille, the Latin word for “thousand”). Any similarity with roman numerals ends there, however, because MM in roman numerals means two thousand, not a thousand thousands, or one million, as in financial contexts (the year 2020 in roman numerals is MMXX). Likewise, MMM in roman numerals means three thousand, not a thousand times a thousand times a thousand, or one billion. (For an overview of roman numerals, see CMOS 9.65–67.)

According to the other convention, K is used instead of M for thousands (as in $150K for $150,000), because K stands for kilo, the Greek-derived term often used as a prefix to mean “thousand.” This meaning is standard in the sciences, where the kilogram (abbreviated “kg” and equal to 1,000 grams) is the base unit of mass (see CMOS 10.54). K is also used in computing to mean “kilobyte,” but mostly in commercial contexts as a shortening of KB (see CMOS 10.49). To further muddy the waters, K can also mean “kelvin,” which is the base unit of temperature.

Nonetheless, if K is used for thousands, then according to the same convention M (mega) would be used for millions, and billions would be represented by G (giga). If B is typically used instead of G, the reason is obvious: even if you don’t know anything, you might guess that B means “billion.” G, on the other hand, is a slangy shorthand for “grand,” as in a thousand dollars, which might disqualify it as an abbreviation for billions in financial contexts. (Nor is the meaning of “billion” itself an entirely settled matter; see CMOS 9.8.)

So we’re back to square one. Unlike the conventions in science, which are universal (assuming you adhere to the international system of units, or SI), the conventions in finance vary, not only by country but also among institutions, even within the same country. For that reason, in financial contexts it’s best to define up front the convention you are using—whether it’s M and MM and MMM or K and M and B (or G) or something else—to make sure your readers are on the same page. See also CMOS 9.24.

Q. Always such a pleasure to see the Q&A again! I want to ask you about a journal format that is new to me: one that simply numbers its articles sequentially. This was my first go at citing it:

Amare, Mulubrhan, Jane Mariara, Remco Oostendorp, and Menno Pradhan. “The Impact of Smallholder Farmers’ Participation in Avocado Export Markets on the Labor Market, Farm Yields, Sales Prices, and Incomes in Kenya.” Land Use Policy 88, 104168 (November 2019): 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2019.104168.

Then I realized that I’d better put the word “article” in front of the article number to keep people from thinking it’s a typo for an issue number or even, in this case, for page numbers. Also on second thought, I question the need to add 1–13 (the page nos.) at the end because all the articles in this volume have page nos. of the form 1–n. It’s true that readers may be interested to know in advance how long the article runs, but Elsevier doesn’t display the page numbers on its site; you have to open up the article and jump to the end, whatta pain. Have you finalized a rule for this new animal? Many thanks as always.

A. You’re describing an article published according to a continuous publishing model (see CMOS 1.82). Your description is nicely accurate, and your citation very nearly matches our own. CMOS 14.174 shows how we would cite such an article. Yours would be cited in a bibliography entry as follows:

Amare, Mulubrhan, Jane Mariara, Remco Oostendorp, and Menno Pradhan. “The Impact of Smallholder Farmers’ Participation in Avocado Export Markets on the Labor Market, Farm Yields, Sales Prices, and Incomes in Kenya.” Land Use Policy 88 (2019): 104168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landusepol.2019.104168.

In a note, the format would be similar but may also include a citation to a specific page in the article:

. . . Land Use Policy 88 (2019): 5, 104168. . . .

You’re right, however, that adding the word “article” before the article ID and including a page range in the bibliography entry might be helpful, and there’s little harm in including those:

. . . Land Use Policy 88 (2019): 1–13, article 104168. . . .

Chicago doesn’t require these elements—nor does the exportable citation data from ScienceDirect include them—but they are helpful. Until we get a unified database for all the sources in the world, source citation will be as much art as science. Take our recommendations and adapt them to specific cases as needed.

Q. In your view, is it permissible in notes/biblio to decide on either “Fall” or “Autumn” for periodical dates and make it consistent, or do we have to follow the individual periodical’s nomenclature?

A. When citing a source, it’s best to use words that reflect the source itself. If an issue of a journal says “Fall,” use “Fall.” If it says “May/June,” use that. When readers follow a citation where it leads and find that the cited facts of publication match those recorded with the source itself, their confidence in your work will grow.