New Questions and Answers

Q. In running text, should “at” be included before an Instagram or Twitter handle? For example, “To learn more, tweet her @username” or “To learn more, tweet her at @username”?

A. Treat the handle as an ordinary noun and include the preposition, redundant as it may seem: “tweet her at @username.” If you were to read your example out loud, you could either emphasize the second “at” (“tweet her at at username”) or ignore it (“tweet her at username”). The first option will make it clear that you are referring to a handle as such. But a handle as handle is a special case. When you mention @Rihanna’s latest creations or an entry in @MerriamWebster—which would be read out loud as “Rihanna’s latest creations or an entry in Merriam-Webster”—the symbol is merely a tool for facilitating platform interactivity. Ignoring the at sign relative to the surrounding text allows for maximum flexibility. And these days, as any old hippie will tell you, that’s where it’s really @.

Q. I am convinced “the prophet Isaiah” in CMOS 8.93 is a typo. So my question is: Really? Is “prophet” really down in “the prophet Isaiah”? Or “apostle” in “the apostle Paul”? Thank you for your time.

A. It’s not a typo. Chicago lowercases generic descriptive titles, so we advise writing “the prophet Isaiah” or “the apostle Paul” just as we would advise writing “the artist Frida Kahlo” or “German chancellor Angela Merkel” (but “Chancellor Merkel,” in which the title is part of the name; see CMOS 8.21).

On the other hand, Saint Paul is normally referred to as Paul the Apostle, in which case “the Apostle” is part of the name in the same way as “the Great” is for Catherine the Great. But again, you would refer to “the apostle Paul”—for example, in a passing mention of Paul in his role as an apostle.

We realize that terms such as “apostle” and “prophet” are often capitalized more liberally in religious contexts and that many publications develop a house style geared toward a particular subject matter and audience. If that means uppercase for Prophets and Apostles, then you have our blessing.

Q. Good day, fellow editors! The conventional rule about companies is to refer to them in the singular: “The company released its quarterly earnings statement.” Fine. But consider this: “The company’s recommendations are X, Y, and Z. I suggest you follow up by asking it these questions.” Or: “Company C shows it cares about its customers. We worked with it to demonstrate its commitment.” Those sentences just sound wrong. Surely you would follow up by asking them questions and work with them to demonstrate their commitment. So what to do? Refer to companies as “they” consistently? (Noneditors have a natural tendency to do this anyway.) Use “it” and switch to “they” where it makes sense to, but then end up with inconsistent pronouns? Your insight is appreciated!

A. As your examples show, “they” can be the better choice whenever a company is considered not as a faceless entity but as an organization made up of real people. But you do need to maintain consistency. So rather than allow a mix of “it” and “they,” settle on one or the other. In a relatively informal or purely promotional context, there’s nothing wrong with “BMW released their quarterly earnings statement.” Conversely, in an article for an academic journal, “Company C claimed to demonstrate its commitment to its customers” is fine also. But as corporations seek to become more accessible to the public, the promotional usage (which, as you suggest, often seems like the natural choice) may be creeping into formal prose. And who knows? Singular “they” was voted word of the decade. Corporate “they” may not be far behind.

Q. Once and for all: to abbreviate “postscript” at the end of correspondence, is it best to write PS or P.S.? The glossary in CMOS advises no periods, but several examples in the Q&A use them, like this one. Help!

A. Chicago style for the abbreviation of “postscript” can be deduced from our recommendations for using periods with abbreviations (CMOS 10.4), which can be summarized as follows: (a) use periods for an abbreviation that consists of lowercase letters or that ends in a lowercase letter, such as p. or pp., a.m. or p.m., and Dr.; (b) use a period for an initial standing in for a name, as in E. B. White; but (c) omit periods from abbreviations that include two or more capital letters, such as US, PhD, and CEO.

So we would advise writing “PS,” no periods. (The lowercase alternative, “p.s.,” doesn’t seem to be supported by tradition. And the glossary entry you refer to is for the abbreviation of PostScript, the specialized programming language from Adobe—so that doesn’t count.)

As for our own use of “P.S.”—with periods—guilty as charged. As the Q&A has developed over the last twenty-plus years, Chicago style has evolved. Until 2003, we would have advised periods, but then we dropped them—first from academic degrees and most other abbreviations with capital letters (in the 15th ed.), and then also from “U.S.” (in the 16th ed.).

Another consideration: Postscripts are a little old-fashioned (you can usually go back and edit the body of your letter or email or whatever), and so are periods.

But that’s all in the past. Thanks to your query and others like it, we hereby announce “PS”—no periods—as our preference for “postscript.”

PS: You can follow “PS” with either a colon or a period. With our updated preference, the colon is best, but if you prefer “P.S.” you can leave it out.

Q. I write scientific review articles for a company. When I use Zoterobib to cite sources in my articles, I see that scientific names for organisms in the titles that I add to my bibliography are not italicized, even though I chose “Chicago Manual of Style 17th edition” as the style. Should I italicize the scientific names in my article’s bibliography, or is Zoterobib correct?

A. You should apply any italics as they appear in the title of the source itself.

For example, if you paste the URL for a random article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases into Zoterobib (a scaled-down, browser-based version of Zotero, the popular open-source citation management program) and choose Chicago style, you’ll get the following bibliography entry:

Gruenberg, Maria, Natalie E. Hofmann, Elma Nate, Stephan Karl, Leanne J. Robinson, Kjerstin Lanke, Thomas A. Smith, Teun Bousema, and Ingrid Felger. “QRT-PCR versus IFA-Based Quantification of Male and Female Gametocytes in Low-Density Plasmodium Falciparum Infections and Their Relevance for Transmission.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 221, no. 4 (February 3, 2020): 598–607.

That entry features several mistakes (as you will discover when you examine the source itself):

  1. The “q” in “qRT-PCR” should not have been capitalized, even at the beginning of the article title.

  2. Not only should it be “Plasmodium falciparum” (in italics), but note also the lowercase f.

  3. “February 3” is the wrong date; issue no. 4 of JID was published February 15, not February 3. (The article also carries a “Published” date of August 22, 2019; that date would have been appropriate had this article been cited before the issue became available.)

Also, Chicago drops an initial “The” from the title of a periodical. Zoterobib did get one thing right: “IFA-Based”; though the title with the article itself shows “IFA-based,” a capital B follows Chicago style.

Here’s the corrected citation:

Gruenberg, Maria, Natalie E. Hofmann, Elma Nate, Stephan Karl, Leanne J. Robinson, Kjerstin Lanke, Thomas A. Smith, Teun Bousema, and Ingrid Felger. “qRT-PCR versus IFA-Based Quantification of Male and Female Gametocytes in Low-Density Plasmodium falciparum Infections and Their Relevance for Transmission.” Journal of Infectious Diseases 221, no. 4 (February 15, 2020): 598–607.

Zoterobib and especially Zotero excel at collecting and organizing source citations; no author should be without such tools. But the automated style rules that programs like these apply aren’t perfect. And the metadata (the structured bibliographic data collected by these programs from publishers’ and booksellers’ websites) isn’t either. You’ll almost always need to edit the info—preferably the moment you collect it, so you don’t have to return to the source later on.

Q. Lately I see more and more hyphenated -ly phrases, especially in digital communication—e.g., “a hastily-made decision.” Is this just my cognitive bias inventing a trend that isn’t there, or have your editors noticed more -ly hyphens as well? I know they’re more unnecessary than incorrect, so am I being fussy to mark them for deletion if they’re used consistently and doing no real harm to reader comprehension? Thanks as always for your insight.

A. We haven’t noticed such a trend. Actually many years ago such hyphens were a lot more common than they are today. For example, in the first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), there were about fifty such hyphens. But we’ve evolved since then to recognize the -ly species as mainly adverbial in nature. You can therefore delete any mutant, atavistic hyphens that cross your path.

Q. Regarding the placement of a comma after “of course,” I’d always treated “of course” used emphatically differently from “of course” used as an aside. With the emergence of better grammar checkers being utilized with an assumption of accuracy, I now see more of this: “Can I come over?” “Of course, you can.” Is this actually correct? I’ve been unsuccessful in finding a conclusive answer. Some sources say you always put a comma after “of course.” Others say it’s up to the author. Since it seems that the placement of a comma can change the meaning, I’d hoped for something a bit more definitive than “You do you, boo.”

A. The presence or absence of a comma after “of course” can make a difference, and any source (including your grammar checker) that suggests “of course” always needs to be followed by a comma is wrong. Though a comma can usually follow an introductory adverbial phrase like “of course,” such a comma is also usually optional (see CMOS 6.31). Of course, setting off a phrase like “of course” will emphasize the phrase itself. But to shift the emphasis to include the words that follow, you should omit the comma. (Of course you should.)

March Q&A

Q. In previous Q&A entries, you’ve said to include a comma after “Inc.” or “Ltd.” if a comma precedes it: “The office of ABC, Inc., was located downtown.” I could understand the reason for this if “Inc.” were replaced by a generic description: “The office of ABC, an incorporated company, was located downtown.” But since “Inc.” is a capitalized part of a formal, proper name, wouldn’t this be analogous to the example in CMOS 6.17 about titles of works, in which a title containing a comma doesn’t need to be followed by a comma (“Look Homeward, Angel was not the working title of Wolfe’s manuscript”)? If not, what’s the distinction?

A. Our recommendation depends on the idea that “Inc.” isn’t truly a formal part of a company’s name (in spite of what some companies like to think). It is, rather, a description that attaches to the formal name but is itself generic—every bit as generic as your example, “an incorporated company.” In just about the same way, “Jr.” and “Sr.” function as generic but capitalized additions to a person’s name; they signal a relationship to a parent or child with the same name, but they are not intrinsic to any one name.

A comma in the title of a novel or other work, on the other hand, belongs to that title: it can’t be deleted as a simple matter of style, as we recommend doing before “Jr.” or “Inc.” (see CMOS 6.43 and 6.44). Nor does such a comma bear any syntactic relation to the surrounding text. The fact that titles of works are usually cordoned off from the surrounding text by italics or quotation marks supports this logic.

If you’re still not convinced, and if dropping the first comma isn’t an option (some companies will insist), follow the logic of titles of works and omit the second comma. Any logic, as long as you adhere to it consistently, is better than none.

Q. Bibliographical citations of books with more than two editors look weird to me. The following citation, at a glance, appears to have four editors, as there are four items separated by commas: Cypess, Rebecca, Beth L. Glixon, and Nathan Link, editors. Word, Image, and Song, Volume 1: Essays on Early Modern Italy. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2013. Is there a way to improve this citation and make it clear that there are three editors, Rebecca Cypess being just one person?

A. Yes, there is (aside from using semicolons, which we would not recommend; source citations are complicated enough as it is). Simply change the word order (and note that Chicago treats a volume number separately from the title; see CMOS 14.119):

Rebecca Cypess, Beth L. Glixon, and Nathan Link, eds. Word, Image, and Song. Vol. 1, Essays on Early Modern Italy. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2013.

There: it no longer looks like a book by four editors, the first two of whom happen to be mononymous. But if you plan to include the citation in an alphabetical list, change it back to how it was; otherwise, the reason for doing this will become evident when you get to the letter R (at which point inverted names should start to seem normal).

Q. I understand CMOS’s position on this, but I need help with my argument. Our company’s acronym is singular and ends in an S, just like CMOS. I want to write it with an apostrophe s when needing possession, but others want to use only the apostrophe, as in CMOS’. I need help with my argument with my boss. Thank you.

A. Unlike a personal name that ends in an s (e.g., Harris), an all-caps acronym like CMOS (pronounced SEE-moss) doesn’t even have the appearance of a plural; the s that signals a plural ending is normally lowercase. (A company with two chief marketing officers would have two CMOs, not two CMOS.) So even if you followed a style that prefers Harris’ reputation to Harris’s reputation, an expression like TASS’ headquarters (for the Russian news agency) would risk being misread, whereas TASS’s headquarters is perfectly clear. The same could be said for an initialism, which is pronounced as a series of letters: CBS’s newscasts is more clearly possessive than CBS’ newscasts. We sincerely hope you manage to win your argument (and keep your s).

Q. Should numerals and spelled-out numbers be italicized if they’re being referred to as numbers, as in “The number twelve is significant in the Old Testament”? What about a personal name being referred to as a name?

A. In either case, italics are unnecessary. Write “the number twelve” (or “the number 12”; see CMOS 9.3 for Chicago’s alternative rule for spelling out numbers) and, for example, “the name Ruth.”

Italics (or quotation marks) for words or letters used as such are designed to prevent misreading the word or letter as literally part of the grammatical sentence; no such ambiguity is likely with numbers or names. So, for example, the following sentence could be ambiguous without italics or quotation marks:

The word search was starting to bother me.

On the other hand, special treatment may be necessary for names or numbers in certain cases:

Type “Ruth” into the search box, then hit Enter.

Q. Does the rule in CMOS 7.53 about non-English words hold for names of food and dishes, even if there is no English equivalent? For example, “He made rustici, Italian pastries.” “Her favorite dish is aloo paratha.” “My favorite dish is kacchi biryani.” Should “rustici,” “aloo paratha,” and “kacchi biryani” be in italics?

A. Good question! The purpose of using italics for non-English words in an English-language context is (a) to prevent them from being misunderstood as an unfamiliar English word (or as a typographical error) and (b) to signal a switch from English spelling style to another convention.

But italics aren’t automatically necessary for non-English words in an English context. In the context of your examples it’s obvious that the terms are names of food. The choice can also depend on the frequency of such words (isolated terms are more likely to merit italics) and on the perspective of the narrator or speaker. For example, a non-English term used in dialogue would rarely merit italics, since it can be assumed that it is part of the vocabulary of the person speaking it.

Q. This sentence has a dual subject but the author has a singular verb, which sounds right to the ear but can’t be correct, right? Here is the sentence: “Building and extending sewer systems requires large capital investments.” Should it read “require” to match the “building and extending” or can those two things be somehow considered as a single thing? Thank you!

A. A compound subject usually takes a plural verb, but not if the components in the subject are being considered as a single unit or concept. The line is subjective and may depend on context:

Kneading and stretching dough isn’t as easy as it looks.

Kneading and stretching dough are two separate but related skills.

The first example considers the two activities together, as a related set of actions; the second considers these same actions separately.

Nor does the choice of verb depend on the additional noun, which has merely been elided before the conjunction. Even if the noun is repeated, the considerations are the same:

Kneading dough and stretching it isn’t as easy as it looks.

And if you reduce the example to the gerunds, either of the following would also work, depending on context and intended meaning:

Kneading and stretching takes practice.

Kneading and stretching take practice.

In your example, “requires” is probably fine, but if the context suggests that the investments may apply to building and extending in separate stages, your safest choice would be “require.” And if there’s any doubt about the author’s intention, choose the plural.

Q. According to CMOS, which is the correct use . . . “OK” or “okay”? I’m having difficulty finding the answer to what I hope is an easy question. Thank you!

A. “OK” and “okay” are informal, so even though we might normally choose the first-listed “OK” in Merriam-Webster (rather than its equal variant “okay”), it doesn’t really matter which form of this handy nineteenth-century abbreviation you prefer. Both appear in CMOS 17, all but once as “OK” in examples that feature informal prose (and not counting its appearance as an abbreviation for Oklahoma). The one time the term appears in our own explanatory text, we chose “okay,” which looks more like a real word (see CMOS 14.5, first bullet point). In texts or email, you’ll face a different set of choices that are beyond the scope of CMOS. But if you can somehow manage to strike a balance between personal preference, on the one hand, and considerations related to context, desired tone, audience, and the changing fashions of internet language, on the other, you should be just fine (as in A-OK). Okeydoke?