Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question

disgusted cat

Even though their CD-ROM and its tech support suck, I still love the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A:

Q. I’m editing a textbook that references a play. Should it be “Act 3,” “act three,” or “act 3”? A solution to this mystery would be greatly appreciated. I’ve looked at CMOS a hundred times for help with this issue.

A. Wow—a hundred times? If you can suggest how we can make section 8.194 more clear, we’ll try to do better in the next edition: “Words denoting parts of long poems or acts and scenes of plays are usually lowercased, neither italicized nor enclosed in quotation marks . . . act 3, scene 2.”


Q. At the annual meeting of our local PBK chapter, dispute on the pronunciation of “archival” arose: whether the stress falls on the first or the second syllable. Give us your wisdom. I will pass it on in the column I write weekly in a local paper about any subject that pops into my head.

A. As a style guide for writers, CMOS must resist the temptation to weigh in on an issue of pronunciation. We are editors, absorbed in our manuscripts. We can go for days without even speaking. I suggest you consult the linguists who write dictionaries for this purpose. (I’m sorry this won’t give you anything to put in your column, but thanks for your help with mine.)


Q. Is it “cell phone” or “cel phone”? I am working on a crash deadline, and would appreciate a quick response. Thank you so much!

A. Any writer who has deadlines should also have a dictionary. I always swear I’m not going to look up words for people, but it’s like being a mom and picking up socks—something just makes me do it. It’s “cell phone.”

Please buy a dictionary—and pick up your socks.


Q. My question is, is there any standard for the usage of emoticons? In particular, is there an accepted practice for the use of emoticons that include an opening or closing parenthesis as the final token within a set of parentheses? Should I (1) incorporate the emoticon into the closing of the parentheses (giving a dual purpose to the closing parenthesis, such as in this case. :-) (2) simply leave the emoticon up against the closing parenthesis, ignoring the bizarre visual effect of the doubled closing parenthesis (as I am doing here, producing a doubled-chin effect :-)) (3) put a space or two between the emoticon and the closing parenthesis (like this: :-) ) (4) or avoid the situation by using a different emoticon (Some emoticons are similar. :-D), placing the emoticon elsewhere, or doing without it (i.e., reword to avoid awkwardness)?

A. Until academic standards decline enough to accommodate the use of emoticons, I’m afraid CMOS is unlikely to treat their styling, since the manual is aimed primarily at scholarly publications. And the problems you’ve posed in this note give us added incentive to keep our distance. (But I kind of like that double-chin effect.)


Q. Dear “My New Best Friend” (copyeditor): Is there a “Cliff Notes” version of the Chicago Manual of Style or any quick reference type of document with the general rules?? (I have the fourteenth edition.) I do appreciate your assistance. Long life to you as a copyeditor. P.S. I am doing a doctoral dissertation and would like to get the style correct in the beginning.

A. Yes—we hear that Cliffs is going to work on CMOS as soon as they finish with their version of the Chicago Yellow Pages. In the meantime, you might check out Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, a much smaller style guide than CMOS, especially tailored for student research projects. (Turabian will tell you how to cite all the Cliffs Notes you used for your dissertation.)


Q. My fashion expert daughter insists that denim does not go with “almost anything,” as I say it does. What is your opinion? Does denim match almost anything, including other colors and other fabrics, e.g., silk?

A. Finally, a real style question! If only we Chicago manuscript editors were a little more fashion-forward . . .

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Photo: Waiting impatiently to go outside, New Year’s Eve by Eirik Newth; some rights reserved. This cat looks more annoyed, but Eirik’s cats are cuter.

11 thoughts on “Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question

  1. The CMOS may be the wrong style guide to answer the emoticon question, but there are standard and nonstandard ways to use emoticons in the places where emoticons are accepted. If you do it wrong, readers will notice, and it’s preferable to do it right. It’s not silly that some style guide might address such details, even if they’re outside the scope of the CMOS; and I don’t think it’s even silly to hope that the CMOS might address such details. It has the general reputation of addressing everything. (The correct answer is to add a space the size of the space you’d use between words, between the emoticon and the closing parenthesis. :-) )

  2. Thank you, Matthew; that is the style I would have chosen—if I had the capacity to use emoticons at all.

    I can’t ever remember what any of them mean besides the smiley one used in your example, and I’m too lazy to look them up, so instead I just reword. Because of this impairment, I insert them only when I’m writing to someone else who is a heavy user, much in the same way that when I’m talking to someone with an accent, I semiconsciously begin to mimic him or her.

    Getting back to the point, I do think it’s unfair to expect the CMOS to address such issues. As the Q&A Fairy says, it is designed primarily for use in scholarly publishing (though with the obvious understanding that it is the preferred style book for U.S. trade publishers, as well). There are are better-qualified arbiters of online style, and such matters would more properly be addressed by one of those. Online, preferably, where everyone can look it up for free.

    Cindy: I wonder if there are any questions that don’t make the cut. Maia or somebody else who’s closer to the font of wisdom, could you inquire? And are these questions answered by a single person, or a team? Can I interview her, him, or them? How about if I promise to ask only stupid questions?

  3. Click here, and some shall be revealed:

    The identity of “A.” is confidential, but I’m sure you could email her at the CMOS Q&A address, and ask for an interview. (She is very nice, in case that doesn’t come across online.)

    I always enjoy taking a break and catching up on the Q&A — it never disappoints.

    The double-chinned emoticon problem has always stymied me, so I’ve switched over to Korean emoticons to avoid the problem. (They’re horizontal, like so: (^_~) )

    Then she has an extra cheek, or ear, or something… but at least it’s not an extra chin!


    Guide to more emoticons:

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