New Questions and Answers

Q. Should “time travel” be hyphenated as a verb? CMOS 5.25 says it’s okay to use nouns as verbs, but there are no two-word examples. “Time travel” isn’t even in M-W!

A. According to our hyphenation guide at CMOS 7.89 (sec. 2, “phrases, verbal”), a verb phrase that doesn’t appear in the dictionary may be left open. Each of the examples in CMOS also appears in Merriam-Webster (where it is either closed, hyphenated, or open): babysit, handcraft, air-condition, fast-talk, strong-arm, sucker punch. Because “time travel” does not, it may be left open. (By the way, if you figure out how to travel through time, or time travel, and end up crossing paths with the Time Traveler from the classic novel by H. G. Wells, please say hello from us.)

Q. Hi all! I hope everyone is staying safe. I have a quick question. Should it be “What will my teacher say about my never returning to class?” or “What will my teacher say about me never returning to class?” Citations will help. I struggle with this frequently. Thank you so much! Take care.

A. Either one is acceptable, though “my” has traditionally been considered to be the more correct choice in sentences like yours. See CMOS 7.28 for an explanation and examples. For a grammar-based explanation, see CMOS 5.114.

The choice of “my” depends on reading “returning” as a gerund, which is a verb’s present participle acting as a noun. A noun can be the object of a preposition, and if “returning” is the object of the preposition “about,” then “my” is correct because a possessive pronoun is required before a noun. (For example, one would write about “my dog,” not “me dog.”)

But “me” is common in such constructions; it’s also grammatically defensible. If you read “me” as the object of the preposition “about,” then “returning” would function as a present participle that modifies the pronoun “me”—as in, “They saw me returning to class the other day.”

In sum, traditionalists may balk at “me” and the so-called fused participle that it creates, but “me” will have its supporters—and in some cases it’s the better choice.

Q. “ZIP Code” is trademarked and essentially an invention by the USPS. They created it with a capitalized “C.” Why do you insist that this “C” is rendered in lowercase?

A. You are right that the United States Postal Service writes “ZIP Code” with a capital C—and ZIP in all caps. You’re also right about us. Though CMOS doesn’t specifically rule on how to capitalize the term, it has rendered it as “zip code” (all lowercase) since it first appeared in the Manual in 1982 (in the 13th ed.). Our editors at that time would have been conforming such passing mentions to the main entries in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (8th ed., Merriam-Webster, 1973). The eighth Collegiate had “zip code n, often cap Z&I&P” (those are ampersands between the letters Z and I and P)—the same as in the current dictionary from Merriam-Webster. (Compare the entry for “Kleenex,” which is listed with a capital K and noted as a trademark.)

Merriam-Webster and CMOS aren’t the only influential resources that don’t fully conform to Postal Service usage. The 2020–2022 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook says to write “all-caps ZIP for Zone Improvement Plan, but always lowercase the word code.” But don’t despair. We are filing your question with the many other suggestions from our readers for future editions of CMOS. Though “zip code” may remain our preferred style for general references to the numeric locator that in the US has become practically synonymous with “neighborhood,” we’ll make a note to acknowledge the trademarked styling as well.

Q. CMOS does not mention uses of the en dash for conflict or connection, as in “the liberal–conservative debate” or “the Radical–Unionist coalition.” Should it be inferred that CMOS opposes such uses?

A. CMOS would never oppose the consistent application of sound editorial logic, but we try to tailor our recommendations to serve both editors and readers. En dashes bump up against the limits of this goal. Editors tend to love them, but readers who haven’t been editors or proofreaders may not even notice them. If Chicago has resisted adding the sense of “between” or “and” to the more common use of the en dash as “to,” that’s the primary reason (see CMOS 6.80).

Because we do see the value of using an en dash in a phrase like “Ali–Frazier fight” or “Epstein–Barr virus.” Those dashes signal that you’re not referring to a fight or a virus that involves somebody with a hyphenated last name. And we wouldn’t want a “liberal–conservative debate” to be read as a debate about conservatives who are liberal, as a hyphen might imply. But if readers won’t get this from those en dashes (most of us—even those of us who can discern an en dash from a hyphen—will rely on context to figure out the intended meaning), is it worth an editor’s trouble to apply them?

True, we already take the time to convert hyphens to en dashes in number ranges, mostly because we know that “99–100” is a hair more legible than “99-100.” But pattern matching makes this easy to do. And we usually replace a hyphen with an en dash in “pre–Civil War” and the like—in the possibly vain hope that readers are more likely to see at a glance that it’s not a war that’s “pre-Civil.”

But we would need to be confident that more readers have become en dash literate before adding to our existing recommendations. If that ever happens, Chicago’s recommended uses for the character also known as Unicode 2013 may end up expanding.

Q. According to CMOS 6.51, “Expressions of the type that is are traditionally followed by a comma. They are best preceded by an em dash or a semicolon rather than a comma, or the entire phrase they introduce may be enclosed in parentheses or em dashes.” My question is this: Would it still be acceptable to use a comma in such expressions rather than the em dash or parentheses? Thank you!

A. Technically, yes: two commas would still be considered correct. But the problem with that first comma—and the reason we discourage it—is that unlike dashes, semicolons, and opening parentheses, which are forward looking, commas tend to be backward looking. For example,

The committee, that is, its more influential members, wanted to drop the matter.

Does the phrase “that is” in the example above belong with the words that come before it, or does it belong to the words that follow? A stronger mark solves this potential for a momentary misreading by providing more structure to the sentence:

The committee (that is, its more influential members) wanted to drop the matter.

Another solution is to simply omit the second comma:

The committee, that is its more influential members, wanted to drop the matter.

That last approach is fine for casual prose, but formal prose usually calls for the more structured punctuation choices recommended in CMOS.

Q. Hi, I see that CMOS 8.36 discusses kinship names and when to capitalize versus when to lowercase. I’m wondering about a term like “sir” or “ma’am” used in direct address: “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, Ma’am”? I think probably the former, but what do you recommend? Thank you.

A. You’re right to prefer lowercase. Terms like “sir” and “ma’am” are almost never used literally as titles these days. Instead they’re more often like common nouns or pronouns, as in “Hello, stranger,” or “Hey, you.” So unless you are transcribing a conversation with Sir Paul McCartney or Dame Judi Dench (two modern celebrities on whom titles have been conferred; see CMOS 8.32), write “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am.” Compare “Greetings, Doctor.” In that case, “Doctor” is a proper noun standing in for a person’s name in the form “Dr. Surname.” But these distinctions can be fuzzy; when in doubt—or to convey a less formal tone—use lowercase.

Q. How do you cite a photograph of a piece of art that is in a book chapter with two authors and the book has several editors? Do you need all of the creators—photographer, artist, authors, and editors? Thank you!

A. We get a lot of questions like yours. They generally go something like this: “How do I cite a picture / drawing / marginal annotation / coffee mug stain / whatever that I found in a book?” The answer is generally the same: describe the object in your text; then cite the book accordingly.

So in your text you would describe the artwork as needed—for example, what it is and who created it and when; assuming you’ve done that, there’s usually no need to give additional details in a note. Nor would you need to name the photographer as credited in the book, a redundant move that would amount to citing another source’s cited sources.

Then you would simply cite the book as a whole and provide a page number where the image may be found. If the chapter itself is relevant to the artwork or to your discussion, you will want to cite the book in terms of the chapter. Here’s the format you would use:

1. Author One and Author Two, “Title of Chapter,” in Title of Book, ed. Editor One, Editor Two, and Editor Three (City: Publisher, 2020), 147.

If, however, the artwork is central to your discussion—or you’re a student and your instructor requires it—you may want to cite the artwork itself. In that case, it would be best to track down its location in a gallery or online and to confirm the relevant details there rather than relying on the secondary source information in the book (though the book should give you a head start on finding the artwork and the information about it that you will need). Examples may be found at CMOS 14.235.

August Q&A

Q. Back to lay/lie, which is my most unfavorite error! There is an exception to the answer you gave in a recent Q&A—“lay takes an object” EXCEPT when you’re talking about chickens! The hens are laying. (Of course, eggs are implied, but not mentioned.)

A. In grammar as in life, there will always be exceptions. Merriam-Webster does list a few intransitive senses for “lay,” the first of which is “to produce and deposit eggs.” But as you suggest, one person’s intransitive verb is another’s elliptical construction. You can call your cousins or just call [them]. And if you’re not laying eggs, what exactly is your object? (Please don’t lay into us on that one—yet another intransitive use for “lay,” in which the object requires the intervention of a preposition.)

Q. How would it be best to punctuate spoken dialogue when a word is repeated to change or clarify meaning? For example: I “like” like you. (Alternatively: I like-like you.) Meaning: I am romantically attracted to you.

A. You are referring to the phenomenon known as contrastive focus reduplication (or simply contrastive reduplication), a term coined by Jila Ghomeshi, Ray Jackendoff, Nicole Rosen, and Kevin Russell; see “Contrastive Focus Reduplication in English (The Salad-Salad Paper),” Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 22 (2004): 307–57.

Ghomeshi et al.’s paper describes the effect of this repetition as “denoting the prototypical instance of the reduplicated lexical expression” (p. 308). In other words, it’s like adding “really” or “real” before the repeated verb or noun: I don’t just like you, I really like you. To illustrate the phenomenon, the text of Ghomeshi et al.’s paper uses an en dash between repeated words and, for repeated phrases, hyphens in addition to the en dash; to show the emphasis typical of such expressions, the first term is in all caps:

I’ll make the tuna salad, and you make the SALAD–salad.

Oh, we’re not LIVING-TOGETHER–living-together. (p. 308)

CMOS does not yet weigh in on this phenomenon, but we would probably say that in ordinary prose the dashes and hyphens are unnecessary. The capital letters provide a helpful cue, but italics, which are a little less emphatic, would be more appropriate in most situations. Here’s what that would look like:

I don’t simply like you, I like you like you.

Your idea of using quotation marks for the first term is a good one, especially when italics are not an option and when ALL CAPS or SMALL CAPS would feel like too much. But quotation marks might be read as scare quotes, making them more appropriate for irony than for emphasis.

In sum, Ghomeshi et al.’s approach works well in an academic paper on contrastive reduplication. But in a novel or a story or an ordinary piece of journalism, italics alone should suffice. Anything more than that would be overkill—as in, like, overkill overkill.

Q. I see that CMOS 8.155 has “Google Docs” as an example. Would you also cap the singular “Google Doc,” or because it’s not the name of a program and just referring to a document in the Google Docs platform, would it be “Google doc,” akin to “Word doc”?

A. The answer depends on how formal you want to be and whom you are writing for and why. Many writers would consider “doc” to be too casual for formal prose. Unlike “app”—which was considered casual a generation ago but is now a universally accepted synonym for “application” or “program”—“doc” is still listed in Merriam-Webster as an abbreviation only.

But if you do write about docs instead of documents, be consistent. Your suggestion that a Google doc is akin to a Word doc is exactly right. If, on the other hand, you work for Google or you’re describing how to use Google Docs, you might write “Doc” with a capital “D”—as in, “Create a new Google Doc.” (That’s what Google does in its tutorials for teachers.)

Otherwise, refer generally to documents created or edited in Google Docs; ditto for Microsoft Word. This advice extends to spreadsheets created or edited in Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel and to slides created or edited in Google Slides or Microsoft PowerPoint.

Q. Which comes first in a bibliography, edition number or editor? What would the sequence be if there is an author, an editor, an edition number, and a specific page range of the chapter one is citing?

A. List the edition followed by the editor, according to the following pattern:

Surname, First Name. “Chapter Title.” In Book Title, 3rd ed., edited by First Name Surname, 26–42. City: Publisher, 2020.

It’s important to list the edition immediately after the title of the book, because in some cases a subsequent edition will have been edited by someone other than the editor(s) of previous editions. Few books fit this pattern neatly, but you can adapt the entry as needed. For example, here’s how you would cite a chapter in the 2019 paperback version of a 2008 second edition of a collection of novels edited by B. P. Reardon and published by the University of California Press:

Xenophon of Ephesus. An Ephesian Tale. Translated by Graham Anderson. In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, 2nd ed., edited by B. P. Reardon, 145–97. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019.

The title of the chapter is in italics in this case because the chapter reproduces a novel—though a short one (see CMOS 8.178). For citing authors like Xenophon of Ephesus who are known primarily by a given name, see CMOS 14.83.

Q. CMOS omits periods after any designator for United States organizations of any kind—e.g., US Army, US Navy, US Department of State. This format directly contradicts all official U.S. government writing guidelines. What prompted CMOS to make such a change?

A. CMOS dropped the periods in “US”—first as an option (15th ed., 2003) and then as a preference (16th ed., 2010)—in order to move toward what we think is a more logical, streamlined approach to abbreviations. According to this logic, periods are omitted from abbreviations in all caps (like “US” or “NASA”) but not from abbreviations that end in a lowercase letter (like “a.m.” and “p.m.” or “etc.” or “Dr.”). These principles are outlined in CMOS 10.4.

There are exceptions to the lowercase rule—for example, periods are never used in “kg” and “Kbps” and “mph” and many other units of measure (see CMOS 10.49).

In preferring “US” to “U.S.,” it is true that CMOS not only breaks with tradition but also contravenes the recommendations in the GPO Style Manual (the guide for the US Government Publishing Office). But to follow GPO style, you must learn a different set of rules—according to which, for example, “C.P.A.” (certified public accountant) takes periods but “CPI” (consumer price index) does not. Nor does CMOS align with the journalistic recommendations of the Associated Press, according to which “U.S.” and “U.K.” take periods (except in headlines) but “EU” and “AP” do not.

Each style has its own logic and its own set of traditions, tailored to specific types of writing and specific audiences, and Chicago is no different in being different from the others.

Q. Hi! Your guidelines for hyphenating a compound modifier before a noun cite clarity as a primary reason for doing so. But what if the compound modifier is enclosed in parentheses, such as in the phrase “global (big picture) revision”? Obviously I would hyphenate “big picture” before a noun if that modifier wasn’t enclosed in parentheses, but in this example clarity is not an issue. What say y’all?

A. Parentheses make hyphenation unnecessary except for terms that would be hyphenated in any position. So you would be right to write “big-picture revision” but “global (big picture) revision.” The same principle applies to quotation marks: Our error-prone editor, resorting to his favorite excuse, reminded us that this would be a “big picture” revision only.

Q. Why do you folks at CMOS continue to describe words whose initial letters are capitals as “capitalized.” I suppose it’s easier than the more precise formulation and could be defended as commonly understood—but it’s not. This usage is at best confusing. Words are often truly capitalized, and I’m sure that most English speakers unschooled in CMOS’s peculiar practice will take “capitalized” to mean what it says. And if “France” is said to be “capitalized,” what is “EPA”? Super-capitalized?

A. We, too, like precision. But the first definition of “capitalize” at Merriam-Webster.com is “to write or print with an initial capital or in capitals.” As you suggest, this is especially convenient for people like us who write and maintain a style guide. Rather than being obliged to write “spelled with an initial capital letter” each and every time we refer to the principle, we can simply say “capitalized.” And when we need to distinguish a word like “France” from an abbreviation like “EPA,” we have a handy go-to: the former is merely capitalized whereas the latter is in all caps.