Believe it or not! Our ten most-read style Qs

But Can IThis week we’re celebrating our new book, But Can I Start a Start a Sentence with “But”?, a selection of our favorite questions and answers from The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s monthly Q&A.

You may be familiar with the Q&A, where for nearly twenty years the editors at the University of Chicago Press have answered reader questions about style and grammar. But did you know that the archive of all those questions and answers is posted as free content at our site? From the “Browse Q&A” page, a person can lose hours wandering amid the commas and semicolons. And as our analytics show, many do.

What surprises us is where they choose to land! Here, in reverse order, are the most-accessed questions in the online history of the Q&A.


Q. If a person has two last names, but they are not hyphenated, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, how do you alphabetize them—by Beecher or Stowe? Beecher is not her middle name. It is her maiden name.

In the absence of a hyphen, alphabetize by the final name. Since it’s usually not possible to know for certain the origin of the name in the middle, it is treated as a middle name (not a surname) by default. Not observing this simple rule would lead to chaos: Chantelle Rutherford Smith would be listed in some directories under Rutherford and others under Smith, even if Rutherford is a middle name she was given at birth. (Note that Spanish names have their own rules; please see CMOS 16.84.)


Q. When should the word century be capitalized? I know it would not be capitalized in this case: “It’s not happened in this century.” But what about this: “Were many people rich in the eighteenth century?” or “What did people wear in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania?”

A. Chicago style treats century like day, month, or year; we would lowercase it in all the contexts you cite.


Q. The plural of curriculum is curricula. Why does the dictionary list symposiums as an acceptable plural for symposium? And does the rule differ for every plural of words ending in -um?

A. Curricula is the plural in Latin. In American English, the plural is curriculums. Both are correct, although in academic writing, there is a tradition of using the Latin plurals. Chicago editors follow Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary when forming plurals of adopted words, but please see CMOS 7.6. 


Q. If someone has a PhD and is a professor at a university, what would be his or her title? Doctor or Professor?

A. Although this question doesn’t really fall within the purview of CMOS, the manuscript editing department at Chicago is of course well versed in etiquette, as we are in most things. Traditions vary from school to school and from discipline to discipline. You’re always safe with Mr. or Ms., but I doubt that any teachers would be offended if you called them Professor, whether or not they are one. Doctor is usually reserved for medical doctors, although some professors use it, and PhDs who don’t have tenure-track appointments (and who therefore don’t hold the title of professor) often like to use Doctor instead. (For other questions of etiquette, you can browse the Internet for “etiquette” or “manners” or, in this case, “forms of address.”)


Q. When do you use a comma before because? I feel that I never need to put a comma before because because any information after it is necessary. What are your thoughts?

A. I disagree. Here’s the old example that comes to mind:

He didn’t run, because he was afraid.

He didn’t run because he was afraid.

In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary; the main thing is that he didn’t run, and the reason is incidental. The second sentence, which omits the comma, is unclear. It might mean that he ran, but not because he was afraid. To prevent confusion, sometimes you need the comma. For more examples, see CMOS 6.31.


Q. Must a comma always precede the phrase “such as”? If not, what is the rule for when there should be a comma?

A. You need a comma if what follows is nonrestrictive. Our Q&A has devoted much space to this issue; if you type restrictive into the search box, you can access the relevant questions and answers.

Restrictive: I love moments such as those. [I don’t love all moments; this tells which moments I do love.]

Unrestrictive: Don’t you love that lucky, jazzy feeling, such as when you meet someone cute or find money in your pocket? [I love that feeling, unrestricted; here are some examples of it.]

(And thanks to questions such as yours, we now treat this specific question in CMOS; see 6.27 in the sixteenth edition.) 


Q. If names are listed last name first and first name last, which name does the suffix (Jr., Sr., III, etc.) follow? How is this formatted?

A. Commas, even when not used with the noninverted form, are always used with inverted names, which should appear in the following order:

Surname, Given Name, III
Deer, Jim G., Sr.


Q. How would I punctuate the end of a sentence that ends with an abbreviation? For example, “I attended a meeting at ABC, Inc.” Two periods don’t look right.

Q. When ending a sentence with an abbreviation, do you need two periods? The event was held in Washington D.C..

Q. When the author has a middle initial are two periods used in a bibliography? Jordan, Alyce A.. “Rationalizing the Narrative.”

Q. Should one put a period on either side of the parenthesis that ends a parenthetical list ending with etc. or just one? Example: We have fruit (apples, oranges, etc.).

Q. In the following sentence, I omitted the period per CMOS 6.118: . . . as shown in the Sony Film Classics 2006 documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”. My colleague, however, said the period should remain, because it belongs to the sentence, not the title of the movie.

Q. My question is about whether or not periods should be placed at the end of a URL used within a sentence. My coworkers say that we don’t need a period at the end of a website address.

A. For some reason, questions about periods have dominated the Q&A mail lately. Why the sudden confusion? Why, after a lifetime (I trust) of never encountering two periods in a row, do readers suddenly think this might be a good idea? In any case, here are some answers: Don’t ever put two periods in a row. Put one period at the end of a declarative sentence, even if it ends with an abbreviation or a URL. (Questions and exclamations use question marks and exclamation points instead of a period, not in addition to one, even in quotations.) A sentence that stands alone within parentheses needs a period inside the parentheses to end it. (Here’s an example.) A sentence in parentheses within another sentence does not take a period, however, because the period is reserved for the main sentence (questions and exclamations, however, must have their respective marks!). An abbreviation that ends with a period must not be left hanging without it (in parentheses, e.g.), and a sentence containing a parenthesis must itself have terminal punctuation (are we almost done?). Finally, an abbreviation ending with a period that is immediately followed by a question mark or exclamation point requires both marks (Q.E.D.!).


Q. What is the proper use of would or could in sentence structure? For example, would you please close the door? Or, could you please close the door?

A. I don’t see much difference. But I would suppose that would is more polite, because it expresses the idea of probability, and of willingness, and of the desire that something be done, whereas could is more in the realm of ability (yes I can). And according to the American Heritage Dictionary, would is used to make a polite request. But then again, a similar thing is said about could: “Used to indicate tentativeness or politeness. I could be wrong. Could you come over here?” Now, as far as I’m concerned, it becomes then a matter of context and tone. Look at the difference between these two sentences, for example:

Would you do me a favor?

Would you please just shut up.

And even will could be used interchangeably with would or could.

Perhaps could and would are just both vying for what is a sort of awkward subjunctive mood, trying to put a command into the mode of the hypothetical, to increase the possibilities of expression—toward either politeness or irony (e.g., changing the tenor of “Please close the door”).

. . . and the number 1 reader favorite?

Q. When using a superscript footnote number at the end of a sentence, should the period precede or follow the footnote number? What about footnote numbers in midsentence that fall next to some other form of punctuation (comma, semicolon, etc.)?

A. Please see CMOS 14.21: “A note number should generally be placed at the end of a sentence or at the end of a clause. The number normally follows a quotation (whether it is run into the text or set as an extract). Relative to other punctuation, the number follows any punctuation mark except for the dash, which it precedes.” See 14.21 for examples.

Is there a section of the Q&A that you access all the time? Feel free to share it in the comments below. If you’re inspired to ask the editors a question of your own, you can submit it here. Friday on the blog: “CMOS interviews the Q&A.”

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