But Can I Start a Sentence with

But Can I Start a Sentence with "But"?: Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A

by The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff, Carol Fisher Saller

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Q. Is it “happy medium” or “happy median”? My author writes: “We would all be much better served as stewards of finite public funds if we could find that happy median where trust reigns supreme.” Thanks!
A. The idiom is “happy medium,” but I like the image of commuters taking refuge from road rage on the happy median.
Q. How do I write a title of a song in the body of the work (caps, bold, underline, italics, etc.)? Example: The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” looped in his head.
A. Noooo! Now that song is looping in my head (“but it’s too late to say you’re sorry . . .”). Use quotation marks. Thanks a lot.  
Every month, tens of thousands of self-declared word nerds converge upon a single site: The Chicago Manual of Style Online's Q&A. There the Manual’s editors open the mailbag and tackle readers’ questions on topics ranging from abbreviation to word division to how to reform that coworker who still insists on two spaces between sentences. Champions of common sense, the editors offer smart, direct, and occasionally tongue-in-cheek responses that have guided writers and settled arguments for more than fifteen years.

But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? brings together the best of the Chicago Style Q&A. Curated from years of entries, it features some of the most popular—and hotly debated—rulings and also recovers old favorites long buried in the archives.

Questions touch on myriad matters of editorial style—capitalization, punctuation, alphabetizing, special characters—as well as grammar, usage, and beyond (“How do I spell out the sound of a scream?”). A foreword by Carol Fisher Saller, the Q&A’s longtime editor, takes readers through the history of the Q&A and addresses its reputation for mischief. (“It’s not that we set out to be cheeky,” she writes.)

Taken together, the questions and answers offer insights into some of the most common issues that face anyone who works with words. They’re also a comforting reminder that even the best writer or editor needs a little help—and humor—sometimes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226370781
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/18/2016
Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 112
File size: 397 KB

About the Author

Carol Fisher Saller is editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A and writes the Editor’s Corner for the Chicago Manual of Style’s Shop Talk blog. She occasionally writes about language and writing in academe for Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education and is the author of several books for children, most recently the young adult novel Eddie’s War.

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But Can I Start a Sentence with "But"?

Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A

By The University of Chicago Pres Staff

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-37078-1


"It's not so much an issue of correctness as of ickiness"

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms [] Compounds [] Numbers [] Plurals [] Possessives and Attributives [] Words and Letters

So much of editing goes beyond merely applying rules. It requires judgment. "Correctness" is taken for granted as a goal — but correctness according to whom? What's correct in a legal document might be a big mistake in a graphic novel or blog post. For good reason, writers live in fear of overzealous copyeditors who, in search of correctness, will edit the life and voice right out of their work.

Correctness can be especially elusive when dictionaries, style guides, and usage manuals disagree. There is more general agreement on matters of grammar than on matters of style, such as punctuation, hyphenation, capitalization, or abbreviation. In style matters, there are often competing options, all acceptable. And when personal preferences come into play — when my "correct" is your "ick" — style choices can get tricky.

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms

Q. My significant other and I have a disagreement: he maintains that in referring to a roomful of nurses, we may say "a roomful of R.N." on the grounds that we do not need to pluralize R.N. as R.N.s, although he does concede that one would not say "a roomful of nurse." ("Room full" perhaps irrationally connotes to me a more ominous density of nurses than "roomful.") We have been arguing about this for going-on ten years and would like to settle the question in order to move on to some new dispute.

A. To my ear, a roomful of RN sounds far more ominous than a roomful of RNs. But as you can see, Chicago style regularly pluralizes abbreviations and skips the pesky periods: "a roomful [or room full] of RNs." Maybe you can argue about the periods from now on.

Q. I am editing a manuscript of a law book that uses many specialized abbreviations. There is a table of abbreviations, but we have decided to spell out each abbreviation the first time it is used in each chapter, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses. The only question I have is regarding abbreviations for commonly known words. For example, the author lists the United States in the table of abbreviations. To be consistent, I have spelled out United States the first time it is used and followed it with (US). This strikes me as kind of silly, as everyone knows that the US is the United States. Any suggestions?

A. Yes, I agree that explaining abbreviations like US is unnecessary. When consistency gets silly, you can rebel.

Q. I am editing a dissertation for a client who wants to use an abbreviation N. in place of Nietzsche in a dissertation on Nietz-sche. Her advisor said this is okay. I told her it is not okay, and that abbreviations, explained in a list of abbreviations, should be used only for titles of works or for author's names if they are used in citations but not in the text itself. Am I right?

A. If the author's dissertation advisor approves, I don't see why we should object. After all, it's possible that no one besides those two will even read this opus. But if the motive is merely to save typing that wretched name a million times, it would be easy enough to type N. and then replace all the initials with a careful search-and-replace action. If the work is ever revised for publication, the name should be spelled out.

Q. I am proofing an engineering document. There is a section titled "System Engineering Instruction Team (SEIT)." However, this acronym is already defined in the body of a previous section. The argument is that the section in question should simply be titled "SEIT." However, I don't think the section title should be reduced to "SEIT" because the reader may not know what SEIT means upon first glance at the table of contents. I say it's okay to redefine the acronym if it suddenly becomes the title of a major section. Is it ever okay to redefine an acronym after it has already been defined?

A. Of course it's okay! What good is a rule that says you can't help the reader when it seems like a good idea? Redefine an acronym whenever a reader might reasonably have forgotten it.

Q. Dear CMOS, I've often encountered "business process outsourcing" abbreviated to BPO whether it's used as a noun or as an adjective. To my ear, the abbreviation is fine as an adjective but sounds awkward when used and read as a noun, in which case I use the full form. For example, "The company provides IT support and BPO services" — fine. "The company provides services in IT support and business process outsourcing" — fine. "The company provides services in IT support and BPO" — awkward. Is it just me, or does this preference have a sound grammatical basis?

A. It's just you. Outsourcing is a noun, so there's nothing wrong with using the initialism as a noun. If your readers are used to the abbreviation, then by spelling it out you are probably just slowing them down.

Q. When we first use an acronym or initialism like FMCSA we put it in parentheses after the spelled-out version. If the spelled-out version is possessive, does the acronym/initialism need to be possessive too? Example: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA's) new rule or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's (FMCSA) new rule?

A. This question is surely one of the most frequently asked; in the next edition of The Chicago Manual of Style I hope we will issue an explicit ban on this construction. In the meantime, please avoid using a possessive in the word before a parenthesis: the new rule issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Q. When you have an initialism, do you cap the first letter of each word when the phrase is completely spelled out?

A. In the spelled-out version, simply cap as you would if an initialism did not exist: standard operating procedures (SOPs), Rhode Island (RI), American Journal of Education (AJE), Mothers against Preschoolers (MAP).

Q. When you write about a GIF in a text, can you just refer to it as a GIF on first reference or do you have to write "graphic interchange format (GIF)"? I don't think the long version is actually helpful; more people know it as GIF. And I'd be using it as a noun.

A. You never have to do anything that isn't helpful. If a style guide says you do, you need a better guide.


Q. When I entered an incorrect password for your website, I received this message: "Invalid Log In." Shouldn't "log in" be "login" in this case?

A. In a world where CMOS editors could stand with whips and chains over all the IT teams who write code for error messages for all the software packagers who supply all the websites, everything would be written consistently in Chicago style. As it is, however, CMOS editors have no such power. And quite honestly? We're fine with that.

Q. Can you resolve an apparent contradiction concerning compounds? The term in question is copyeditor. According to section 7.85, copyeditor seems to be classified as a "permanent compound." Section 7.78 offers the following definition of that term: "A permanent compound is one that has been accepted into the general vocabulary and can be found in the dictionary." Yet www.merriam-webster.com (a recommended resource in the CMOS bibliography) has copy editor. I've seen the Q&A answer that guesses at the justification of the noun copyeditor on the basis of copyediting as a verb. And I do agree with you that there are more worthy issues to tackle. Just wondering if there is something we're missing in the apparent contradiction.

A. To clarify, Chicago style is not the same as Merriam-Webster's; rather, we recommend that dictionary when a particular word or construction is not covered in CMOS.Copyeditor has been Chicago's preference since the 14th edition. Naturally, dictionaries and style manuals sometimes disagree — after all, who gets to decide what has been "accepted into the general vocabulary"?

Q. I am a primary teacher. I am currently teaching about compound words and have discovered that I am making errors. Some words that I thought were compound are not. However, when I look them up in different sources or look at signs, they are written both as compounds and closed. Would you please tell me how I can find a list of compound words without looking up each word in the dictionary? Thank you.

A. Although an online searchable dictionary would be a good tool for this purpose, the study of compounds is an awfully advanced topic for primary schoolchildren. Adult writers and copyeditors struggle with this issue; I doubt that seven-year-olds can handle it. Most compounds have more than one correct styling. As you've discovered, one dictionary will close up words, and another won't. Even more confusing is that some compounds are hyphenated only when they serve as a modifying phrase. If you must discuss compounds and hyphenation, it would be better to teach your children how to use a dictionary. Show them that dictionaries disagree. Encourage them to use their own judgment in choosing and then to be consistent. Older children can be taught to read a sentence for sense to see whether a compound benefits from a hyphen.

Q. There's a club for people who've worked at my office for twenty-five or more years. It is called the Twenty-Five Year Club. I am wondering why they never added a hyphen between five and year and also if it's okay to retain the capital letters for all the words that are hyphenated. I don't want to rock the boat around here for a club that's been in existence longer than all of us have been in the Publications Office. We are preparing the program for their annual dinner and latest round of inductees. Should we let them retain their old name? Has this come up in other places?

A. Yes, it often comes up in the titles of works. Chicago style would be Twenty-Five-Year Club. As for rocking the boat, maybe Dear Abby has a website you can write to.


Q. When should the written version of a number not be followed by that number in parentheses?

A. Hmm. In a love note? "Remitted herein please find three (3) little words ..."

Q. I am taking a college course in copyediting. My professor and I were having a discussion and I would like to know who is correct. We were presented with this sentence for correction: Of the 400 members, about 300 were over 60 years old, but at least 50 were under the age of 30. I understand the rules stated in 9.2 and 9.4 would apply here and require all of the numbers to be spelled out. However, I chose to leave the 60 and 30 in numerical form in accordance with 9.7, "To avoid a thickly clustered group of spelled-out numbers, numerals may be used instead in exception to the general rule." There are no guidelines that state when to apply the exception, nor are there examples to lead me to a definitive answer. Help please. How do you decide?

A. Your editing would make it easier for some readers to take in the numbers, while others would be distracted by a perceived inconsistency. That is a fundamental challenge for editors. You decide based on how consistent the text is to begin with, how much work it will be to carry out a change throughout a document, and how likely it is that you'll end up introducing inconsistencies. You weigh the work and the dangers against what you think most readers will find helpful. There's usually no "correct" winner; it's a judgment call.

Q. A colleague writes: "Basement space is about 5,700 square feet, but about 12,000 square feet is available on the eighth floor." I suspect the point is arguable, but couldn't that be "12,000 square feet are available on the eighth floor"?

A. Although it might seem counterintuitive, quantities of weight or measure are considered singular: five dollars is enough; three cups of flour makes one loaf. When you think about it, "12,000 square feet are available" reads as though someone short of cash could buy just one or two of them.

Q. Hi, CMOS people — I can't quite seem to figure out whether I should use spelled-out numbers or numerals with units of time — for example, seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. I am not sure whether it should be "2 to 4 weeks" or "two to four weeks"; "30 years" or "thirty years"; etc. I think for numbers over 99, numerals are used, for example "230 seconds." I understand that numerals should be used with units of measure in general, like kg, cm, °C, and °F, etc. Thank you for your help.

A. For units of time (or any other measure) in nontechnical text, we like to spell out numbers up to and including one hundred: "The cake burned in forty-one minutes." If, however, in a given paragraph the same time unit involves a mixture of numbers under and over one hundred, we style them all the same: "Ten runners clocked in at 94 minutes, and forty-three more finished in 101 minutes." (Note that the numbers of runners are not changed to numerals because in that category there is no inconsistency in styling them according to the rule.)

Numerals are always used with abbreviated measures like the ones you list, and in technical or statistical texts, numerals are used even when measures are spelled out. Sometimes even nontechnical text will have a passage containing many numerical references, in which case the editor might decide to use numerals for all in order to save space and prevent what might seem to be inconsistencies. See CMOS 16, chapter 9, for a detailed discussion.

Q. Is it correct to say $3–5 million? Or should it be $3 to $5 million? Or $3 million to $5 million?

A. These are all acceptable ways to express the same thing. With regard to the $ symbol with inclusive numbers, in Chicago style an abbreviation or symbol is repeated if it is closed up to a number but not if it is separated by a space: $3–$5 million, but 2 × 5 in.

Q. Do you have a policy about this pet peeve of mine? I think it is fine to write something like "My office hours are 10–11 AM," but it really seems wrong when the en dash is used in place of the word and or to. How can we make the world stop writing "My office hours are from 10–11 AM" or "My office hours are between 10–11 AM"?

A. We do have such a policy! (Please see CMOS 6.78.) Unfortunately, we have no way to make the world follow it.


Q. My question refers to the plural use of acronyms and initialisms. As I have always understood it, the acronym or initialism can be pluralized only if the last letter indicates the plural item. So MOU (memorandum/memoranda of understanding) cannot become MOUs, but ICT can become ICTs (information and communication technologies). I run into this problem a lot with the initialism RFP (request for proposals), which people like to pluralize as RFPs to indicate multiple requests. The word proposals is already plural, so it does not make sense to me to add an s to the end of the initialism. What is the correct way to make acronyms or initialisms plural?

A. If you can stop thinking of the spelled-out meaning of the acronym and just treat the acronym itself as a word with its own meaning, you should be able to add that little s without fretting.

Q. The editors at our institution disagree about whether the singular point or plural points should be used in the following phrase: "0.4 percentage point(s)." Can you be the decider, as our commander-in-chief would say, on this one?

A.Chicago Tribune language writer Nathan Bierma made sense of this conundrum in a reply to a similar question. He quoted Bill Walsh of the Washington Post, who suggests that the trouble resides in thinking of the singular as one or less, whereas it's more helpful to think of the singular as exactly one, neither more nor less. Walsh points out that we say "zero dollars," not "zero dollar." By this logic, you should write "0.4 percentage points."

Q. I am editing a textbook for English students in Brazil. One of the exercises presents a recipe for pumpkin pie. Students are told the pie filling contains 1½ cup pumpkin, 1½ cup sugar, and so on. I seem to remember that anything greater than 1 should be plural. Am I correct? In other words, should the recipe read 1½ cups?


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Table of Contents

Foreword, by Carol Fisher Saller

1          “It’s not so much an issue of correctness as of ickiness”
Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms
Possessives and Attributives
Words and Letters

2          “‘President of the Mess Hall’ is going to look pretty silly”
Proper Nouns
Titles of Works

3          “Three people have three strong opinions about commas . . .”
Vertical Lists and Bullets
Other Dots, Dashes, and Squiggles

4          “Can fewest mean zero?”
Use or Abuse?
Gender Benders
Grammatical or Not?

5          “If you give birth to a source and he’s still living under your roof . . .”
How Do You Cite . . . ?
What if . . . ?
Quotations and Dialogue

6          “Holy metaphysics—we aren’t that fancy”
Authors, Titles, and Metadata
Permissions, Credits, and Practical Issues
Using a Style Manual

7          “Aaagh!” to “argh!” to “aahhh!”
In the Weeds of Editing
Special Characters
You Could Look It Up
Things That Freak Us Out


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