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Punctuating Style in CMOS 17: What’s New with Colons, Commas, Dashes, and Slashes

This article originally appeared in Copyediting newsletter, which explains the low word-to-humor ratio, and is reproduced with permission from the Pilcrow Group.

Since breaking news of the 17th edition, out in September, The University of Chicago Press has revealed some major revisions to The Chicago Manual of Style. Among the previews: lowercasing internet, dropping the hyphen in email, adding alt text to the manual for accessibility, improving keywords for searchability, expanding source citations to cover social media, and accepting themself to refer to a singular antecedent (as in they bought themself a book on quotations). Punctuation guidelines have also undergone a few tweaks, and though not nearly as controversial as going from e-mail to email, the following updates introduce new rules or clarify old ones for added finesse and flexibility.

Colons

  • When introducing a list or series, the words preceding the colon no longer need to be a grammatically complete sentence if the verb is understood: New: metadata, abstracts, and keywords.

Commas

  • Reword the sentence when the serial comma causes ambiguity. When the serial comma might be misread as framing an appositive, one solution is to repeat the conjunction: Instead of she drove her wife, the teacher, and her mother, use she drove her wife and the teacher and her mother.
  • Use a comma after “etc.,” “et al.,” and “and so forth” only if required by the surrounding text. Instead of setting these terms off with a pair of commas according to the previous recommendation, treat them as equivalent to the final element in a series: The editor donated a dozen outdated reference books (without removing dog-ears, pencil marks, sticky notes, etc. from the pages).
  • Capitalize the first word of a direct question not enclosed in quotation marks when it follows a comma. Another departure from previous editions, this guideline makes this category of question analogous to a direct quotation: He wondered, Should I track changes?
  • It’s not necessary to precede the adverbs “too” and “either” with a comma when used in the sense of “also” at the end of a sentence. They couldn’t make the deadline either. The printer was down too.
  • In correspondence, a greeting containing a direct address requires two punctuations: a comma in the direct address and a colon or comma after the greeting.

Welcome, readers: . . .
Hi, Laura, . . .

But in casual correspondence, the direct-address comma is often omitted.

Hi Erin, . . .

Em Dashes

  • In printed publications, break the line after an em dash, not before. But when another punctuation mark immediately follows the dash, like in this example, keep the elements together:

“I’m saving my edits before I—”
the student said as the computer froze.

En Dashes

  • In printed publications, break the line after an en dash, not before. But if it pushes a single character to the next line, such as part of a number range or a score, keep the elements together.
  • An en dash with a space before and after may be used instead of an em dash in running text. Primarily a British style, an en dash as em dash is preferred by many U.S. publishers and writers.

Slashes

  • In printed publications, break the line after a slash, not before. But if it pushes a single character to the next line (such as when it is part of a two-year span) or splits a fraction, keep the elements together. This new rule doesn’t apply to poetry line breaks (break before or after) or URLs (break before).

Multiple Punctuation Marks

  • Except in formal prose, a question mark can be combined with an exclamation point to “express excitement or disbelief.” Are we another step closer to adopting the interrobang?!

Visit CMOS Shop Talk for Chicago style–related news, advice, and quizzes.

 

Em Dashes and Ellipses: Closed or Spaced Out?

You might be wondering why I’ve paired the em dash with the ellipsis. Doesn’t the em dash usually get grouped with the en dash and the hyphen? Or, less commonly, with the comma, the colon, and the parenthesis? Sure . . . but those set you up for a discussion on usage, not style. (Please consult your favorite grammar book or blog for notes on usage.) If you look at these marks with style in mind, the ellipsis is most similar to the em dash.

If you look at these marks with style in mind, the ellipsis is most similar to the em dash.

This is the basic difference in how ellipses are rendered in AP style and Chicago style:

AP (p. 369): An ellipsis consists of three periods, with a space before and after.

  • Hey, guys … what’re you all laughing about? Are you gonna eat that?

Chicago (13.48): An ellipsis consists of three spaced periods, with a space before and after.

  • Love is . . . retweeting.

So AP’s ellipsis is three dots shoved together, Chicago’s ellipsis is spaced out, and they both like spaces around the dots. Got it. A complication arises when people insist on using the ellipsis closed (i.e., without spaces between the dots). In that case, I recommend that you omit the space on both sides when attempting to follow Chicago style; this will match Chicago’s spacing preference for the em dash.

So AP’s ellipsis is three dots shoved together, Chicago’s ellipsis is spaced out, and they both like spaces around the dots. Got it.

I do hope that I’m the only one who works with account executives who make editorial decisions based on how pretty something looks rather than how much sense it makes. If not, let’s start a support group. We can sit around, looking forlorn but hopeful. The group will be called Hyphens Are Not Ugly.

There’s a part in The Chicago Manual of Style (13.48) which says that you, the writer, can use the three-dot glyph provided in word processors (Option-; or Alt-0133), but we, the editors, are just going to change it to the properly spaced version—with nonbreaking spaces between each period, of course. Nice. Likewise, if the author types two hyphens to represent an em dash, the double hyphen will be converted to a proper em dash. It’s quite janitorial in nature, but I suppose much of editing is.

If you begin a line with an em dash or ellipsis, the only reason you would insert a space before is to drive your editor nuts.

This is the basic difference in how em dashes are rendered in AP style and Chicago style:

AP (p. 368): An em dash, like an ellipsis, has a space before and after, except when used to introduce items in a vertical list.

  • When she called her cats — Chardonnay, Patron and Guinness — the neighbors came running.

Chicago (2.13): An em dash has no space before or after, unless you’re doing some fancy word-replacing maneuvers with a 2-em dash.

  • Glitter, felt, yarn, and buttons—his kitchen looked as if a clown had exploded.
  • Miss S—— killed Professor P—— with a candlestick in the study.

If you begin a line with an em dash or ellipsis, the only reason you would insert a space before is to drive your editor nuts.

It’s easy to remember which gets what space where if you make a connection between the style’s intent and the resulting style.

It’s easy to remember which gets what space where if you make a connection between the style’s intent and the resulting style. (See “Different Goals, Different Styles: Why AP and Chicago Are Not Friends.”) If AP style governs journalism, expect it to be condensed (hence the three unspaced dots for the ellipsis) and easily broken across two lines (via a space before and after the em dash and the ellipsis) to accommodate the space limitations and fast turnaround.

An enthusiastic subscriber to the four-dot-method ellipsis style (Chicago, 13.51), I was thrilled when I saw the period-plus-ellipsis construction in the copy the client provided. This is extremely rare in advertising; well, good grammar is extremely rare. Then, immediately, it was followed by sentences containing five dots and then eight dots. Then fourteen.

I burn through red pens quickly.

Capitalization After Colons: One Sentence or More?

Understandably, many editors are confused about when to capitalize the element directly following a colon. The strategy I happen to use is pretty brain-free, which is to say that it follows AP style. Lucky for us, AP and Chicago agree on one thing before they part ways.

AP (p. 366): Lowercase the first word unless it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.

  • These are some of my favorite things to have for dinner: ravioli, Ethiopian food and breakfast.
  • She told me her secret ingredient: It was butter.

Chicago (6.61): Lowercase the first word unless it is a proper noun or the start of at least two complete sentences or a direct question.

  • I finished reading my friend’s first draft: it was painful.
  • We can do several things this weekend: We can watch King’s Speech. We can do our taxes. Or we can have a tequila party.

AP and Chicago agree on one thing before they part ways.

In my work, I come across some pretty bizarre colon usage which I’d like to eradicate. Therefore, please commit the following to memory:

  • Don’t use more than one colon in the same sentence.
  • Don’t add anything else to a sentence after you’ve finished introducing the element(s). For that, I prescribe a pair of em dashes to set off the element(s) instead.
  • Lose the colon before a subtitle, or secondary title, when the title is displayed on a book cover (or movie poster); by convention, the colon is understood.
  • Don’t use a semicolon instead of a colon to introduce a clause.

A note about colons and spaces: Although I, too, was raised to put two spaces after periods, colons, exclamation points, and question marks by a typewriting teacher who was alive during the Great Depression, it is no longer correct to do so, especially in this age of beautifully typeset materials. The fastest way to clean extra spaces from your copy is to use Microsoft Word to “find” two spaces and “replace” them with one space, and then repeat until two spaces cannot be found.

Though AP only gives the colon a scant 7 column inches of space compared to Chicago’s 2 pages’ worth, it goes out of its way to tack on a little note barring the combination of a dash and a colon. I guess emoticons can’t have noses anymore.

:- )
: (

Here’s a bear who’s surprised to be upside down:

0 :3

The empty martini glass that the bear dropped a second earlier:

()>-0

The olive that rolled under the couch to be discovered next spring:

o

And that, my friends, is how you avoid capitalization altogether.

Different Goals, Different Styles: Why AP and Chicago Are Not Friends

AP and Chicago have very clear yet conflicting intentions, often producing diametrically opposed styles.

If I think of AP as governing “fast content” (newspapers, online articles) and Chicago as governing “slow content” (books, some periodicals), you can see how the different styles grew from different needs.

The different styles grew from different needs.

Main differences in concerns and goals:

  • Layout: With newspaper columns (and online articles), you cannot always control where the break comes at the end of the line, whereas book and magazine publishers can fiddle with kerning, tracking, horizontal scaling, and soft returns, like, forever. Why this matters: Spaces around an em dash will allow it to break across two lines instead of dragging the words before and after it to the next line. Graphic designers working on a magazine article can, instead, manually insert a break after the dash and take their time making things look purdy.
  • Deadlines: Most dailies and many weeklies are constantly under deadline. Having several nuanced style options to choose from will make the editors kill themselves, and that level of clarity is seen as excessive. The other camp, however, has more time to clarify a thought and nitpick its presentation.
  • Compatibility: Ever get an e-mail with weird characters throughout? For copy to travel well—say, from final draft to wire to computer to publication—it must stay intact through its incarnations, with all intended letters, spaces, and punctuation in place. This places a premium on plainness, such as favoring characters over attributes (e.g., quote marks vs. italics). Non-journalistic content generally travels between fewer points and in the same form.

Otherwise kooky style rules come out looking quite reasonable when given the right context.

Maybe I just made all that up, but it sounds good, right? To me, it explains a whole lot, and otherwise kooky style rules come out looking quite reasonable when given the right context.

That’s me being positive.