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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to the previous recommendation, treat them as equivalent to the final element in a series: The editor donated a dozen outdated reference books (without removing dog-ears, pencil marks, sticky notes, etc.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.

 

Slashes: Uses and Restrictions

Misunderstood. Abused. Ignored.

No, not me. Well, maybe that, too, but I’m referring to the beleaguered slash, which you may know as a diagonal, virgule, solidus, slant, stroke, oblique stroke, separatrix, shilling mark, or forward slash (that low-self-esteem retronym which seeks to distinguish the slash [/] from the backslash [\]).

With this many names and almost as many roles—like providing alternatives, adding, abbreviating, separating, joining—the slash is like the understudy who also prints the flyers and strikes the set with the stagehands. Even so, The Associated Press Stylebook chose to exclude the slash from the “Punctuation” section, acknowledging it with a thirty-word chin nod in the main section instead. (It could be worse: The en dash was completely forsaken.)

[In AP style,] slashes are acceptable only in certain phrases and “special situations,” such as with fractions.

It may surprise you to learn that the most common usage of the slash, as a signifier of alternatives/options/choices, has been barred in AP style; slashes are acceptable only in certain phrases and “special situations,” such as with fractions. A heavy user of slashes and other intoxicating punctuation such as semicolons, I do admit to relying upon them to organize the contents of my brain when I’m in a hurry. And why not? They’re free, and I can use the time I’m saving for more important tasks, like chewing properly.

Slashes: Differences Between AP and Chicago Style

AP: We never said that slashes are tacky or that using them is lazy, but we’re cool with those inferences. Here are the acceptable uses.

  • With fractions
  • Between lines of quoted poetry
  • In Internet addresses (URLs) and pathnames
  • In descriptive phrases such as 24/7 or 9/11
  • In the signoff (credit) in photo captions

AP doesn’t explain this, but in the stylebook, the slash is also used in abbreviations such as TCP/IP and NAA/IPTC.

In the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the slash was listed under “solidus” and was summed up in one paragraph. Cute, right? It didn’t make the first edition, in 1906, but that was a two-hundred-page baby compared to today’s thousand-page sumo wrestler.

Chicago: We love our versatile little friend. Here are some of its uses.

  • With fractions
  • Between lines of quoted poetry
  • In Internet addresses (URLs) and pathnames
  • To signify or or and/or
  • With two-year spans, e.g., 1991/92 (instead of an en dash)
  • With dates (informal), e.g., 6/1/11
  • In abbreviations, e.g., $7/hour (instead of per) and c/o (instead of a period)

So that’s the nitty-gritty of slashes and style.

When in doubt, ditch the spaces and you’ll be right most of the time.

Now, let’s talk about how to render a slash in certain contexts to improve readability, which is, after all, the heart of copyediting. (Or the lungs. Some vital organ.) Non-editors tend to either compulsively add spaces around all slashes or close them all up. When in doubt, ditch the spaces and you’ll be right most of the time; however, Chicago has an option for handling open compounds (two or more words separated by a space, e.g., copy editor) that offers more flexibility and clarity—totally worth memorizing. More on that coming up.

General Rule for Using Spaces With Slashes

In most cases, there are no spaces on either side of the slash. This is especially true for unique (read: inflexible) constructions such as directory paths and filenames, where our use of the slash is driven by requirement, not style.

Brief rant: There’s a rogue slash style making the rounds, usually on résumés, for some reason: no space before the slash but one after. I’m not impressed by this. It’s a red flag that points to poor decision-making more than anything else; even if executed consistently, it isn’t a style which showcases a copy editor’s skills. Rather, it may expose them as a street editor (as in any schmoe off the street). Not that I don’t appreciate this heads-up.

Exception: Quoted Poetry

AP: To show line breaks when quoting poetry in running text, use a slash between the lines, with a space before and after the slashes.

Chicago: Ditto. And when quoting more than one stanza in running text, insert two slashes [//] between the stanzas.

Although Chicago discusses this explicitly, AP actually doesn’t say anything about putting spaces around slashes for quoting poetry—only that slashes can be used to denote “the ends of a line in quoted poetry.” Good enough for me!

Exception: Open Compounds

Chicago: If one or both of the terms separated by the slash consist of two or more words, a space before and after the slash may aid comprehension.

This option really appeals to me, because it helps to visually group an open compound, making it clear that words beyond the ones immediately surrounding the slash are part of the thoughts being weighed.

The 15th edition had prescribed a thin space before and after; in the 16th edition, we’ve graduated to a full space, certainly a more realistic option for writers, editors, and typesetters. (Spacing slashes was not even addressed in the 14th edition.) I applaud this move towards simplicity and am looking forward to a thinner edition in CMOS’ next incarnation. Well, I can dream, at least.

I applaud this move towards simplicity and am looking forward to a thinner edition in CMOS’ next incarnation.

Sources

  • AP, 2011: “slash” and “Internet”; “Photo Captions” section
  • CMOS, 16th edition: slashes, 6.103-110; periods with abbreviations, 10.4; running in more than one stanza of poetry, 13.32

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.

State Abbreviations: Use Traditional or Go Postal?

In this quick guide to state abbreviations, I will cover the differences between AP style and Chicago style and—just to prolong your state of confusion—when to use the common two-letter abbreviations created by the United States Postal Service.

If you’re writing a research paper or dashing off a blog post, you can probably ignore all the exceptions and special cases and just lean on these basic guidelines:

  • In running text, AP and Chicago both spell out state names.
  • For mailing addresses, AP and Chicago both default to the two-letter postal abbreviations.
  • For all other abbreviations, AP uses its own state abbreviations and Chicago prefers postal abbreviations (but has its own state abbreviations should that style be more appropriate for your publication).

If you’re writing a research paper or dashing off a blog post, you can probably ignore all the exceptions and special cases.

Did that little appetizer leave you wanting more? If so, I love you. And please read on for an expanded version of the brain-twisting details.

AP (online, fee required)

  • Spell out state names in running text.
  • Abbreviate state names when used in (1) datelines on stories (e.g., KOSHKONONG, Mo.), (2) photo captions, (3) lists, (4) tables, and (5) short-form listings of party affiliation (e.g., D-Calif.). Refer to AP’s “datelines” entry for use of certain well-known city names alone.
  • Use two-letter postal abbreviations only in mailing addresses which include a zip code: “To complain about AP style, write to The Associated Press, 450 W. 33rd St., New York, NY 10001.”
  • For headlines, the new rule says to avoid abbreviating states whenever possible, and the old rule—in case you can’t avoid abbreviating—said to lose the periods when using abbreviations which consist of two capital letters: NY but Ky.

Chicago (10.28)

  • Spell out state names when they stand alone in running text: “I don’t see why Kansas and Arkansas can’t make their names rhyme.”
  • Spell out state names when used with the name of a city (except for DC): “I was born in New York, New York—please stop singing.”
  • Two-letter postal abbreviations are preferred over traditional abbreviations when state names are used in bibliographies, tables, lists, blah cetera.

U.S. Postal Service

Following are the differences between AP and Chicago style in how state names are rendered in their respective “traditional” abbreviations. (Surprise! Abbreviations are not always used.)

Surprise! Abbreviations are not always used.

Aside #1: If your quality expectations are sufficiently lax, as are mine, you might enjoy Wikipedia’s version of how state abbreviations evolved and come up with your own explanation for why there are different notions of what’s traditional. Don’t bother consulting the stylebooks’ official dictionaries for the proper abbreviations: Those are more descriptive than prescriptive, and having more options will only confuse you.

Aside #2: The two-letter U.S. Postal Service code is listed parenthetically after the complete state name, but you probably figured that out.

Aside #3: Note that none of the two-word abbreviations have a space after the first period, e.g., N.Mex. and R.I.

Note to those who thought they were being smart by skipping straight to this list: Chicago prefers the two-letter postal abbreviations over traditional abbreviations; all options are listed below. Use Command-F or Ctrl-F to perform searches. That’s right, it’s ugly for a reason.

 

Alabama (AL)

  • Both: Ala.

Alaska (AK)

  • AP: Alaska
  • Chicago: Alaska or Alas.

Arizona (AZ)

  • Both: Ariz.

Arkansas (AR)

  • Both: Ark.

California (CA)

  • Both: Calif.

Colorado (CO)

  • Both: Colo.

Connecticut (CT)

  • Both: Conn.

Delaware (DE)

  • Both: Del.

District of Columbia (DC)

  • AP: District of Columbia
  • Chicago: D.C.

Florida (FL)

  • Both: Fla.

Georgia (GA)

  • Both: Ga.

Hawaii (HI)

  • Both: Hawaii

Idaho (ID)

  • Both: Idaho

Illinois (IL)

  • Both: Ill.

Indiana (IN)

  • Both: Ind.

Iowa (IA)

  • Both: Iowa

Kansas (KS)

  • AP: Kan.
  • Chicago: Kans.

Kentucky (KY)

  • Both: Ky.

Louisiana (LA)

  • Both: La.

Maine (ME)

  • Both: Maine

Maryland (MD)

  • Both: Md.

Massachusetts (MA)

  • Both: Mass.

Michigan (MI)

  • Both: Mich.

Minnesota (MN)

  • Both: Minn.

Mississippi (MS)

  • Both: Miss.

Missouri (MO)

  • Both: Mo.

Montana (MT)

  • Both: Mont.

Nebraska (NE)

  • AP: Neb.
  • Chicago: Neb. or Nebr.

Nevada (NV)

  • Both: Nev.

New Hampshire (NH)

  • Both: N.H.

New Jersey (NJ)

  • Both: N.J.

New Mexico (NM)

  • AP: N.M.
  • Chicago: N.Mex.

New York (NY)

  • Both: N.Y.

North Carolina (NC)

  • Both: N.C.

North Dakota (ND)

  • AP: N.D.
  • Chicago: N.Dak.

Ohio (OH)

  • Both: Ohio

Oklahoma (OK)

  • Both: Okla.

Oregon (OR)

  • AP: Ore.
  • Chicago: Ore. or Oreg.

Pennsylvania (PA)

  • Both: Pa.

Rhode Island (RI)

  • Both: R.I.

South Carolina (SC)

  • Both: S.C.

South Dakota (SD)

  • AP: S.D.
  • Chicago: S.Dak.

Tennessee (TN)

  • Both: Tenn.

Texas (TX)

  • AP: Texas
  • Chicago: Tex.

Utah (UT)

  • Both: Utah

Vermont (VT)

  • Both: Vt.

Virginia (VA)

  • Both: Va.

Washington (WA)

  • Both: Wash.

West Virginia (WV)

  • Both: W.Va.

Wisconsin (WI)

  • AP: Wis.
  • Chicago: Wis. or Wisc.

Wyoming (WY)

  • Both: Wyo.

Chicago also lists other U.S. territories, only two of which have traditional abbreviations (Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands). None of these are abbreviated in AP style, except in mailing addresses.

  • American Samoa (AS)
  • Federated States of Micronesia (FM)
  • Guam (GU)*
  • Marshall Islands (MH)*
  • Northern Mariana Islands (MP)
  • Palau (PW)
  • Puerto Rico (PR)*: P.R. or Puerto Rico
  • Virgin Islands (VI)*: V.I. or Virgin Islands

*Check entry in the Associated Press stylebook for more details.

You can bookmark this page and forget everything you just read.

Final tip: It might help to know that AP’s standard abbreviations are shorter than (or the same as) Chicago’s for all U.S. states except Alaska and Texas. Well, we might as well throw in District of Columbia. And, if feeling generous, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. Or, in favor of keeping your brain less cluttered, you can bookmark this page and forget everything you just read.

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.