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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Style Issue or Punctuation Rule?

Before I get to our subject of the column, I want to take a moment to brag. In September, my book on creative writing, "Write In Style (Union Square Publishing)," was named a finalist in the Best Books 2005 Awards from, the third honor given the book. It also won First Place in Education in the Royal Palm Literary Awards and was named Best in Division in the Georgia Author of the Year Awards. I wish these accolades proved I am the authority on everything about writing, but in truth I often turn to other sources for my responses to your questions. Sometimes being an expert means you know where to go to get information.

Now for some questions readers like you have asked recently:

Q: Is the Chicago Manual of Style the standard for editing nonfiction book manuscripts? What do you say about the comments made by two other editors?

Original line of text from the manuscript and the ensuing discussion over it: In the late 80’s, I was living in Dallas, Texas running a company that I had founded.

Editor 2: 80s (no apostrophe because there is no possession--and you might want to use 1980s to make it even more clear)

Editor 1: Well, this is a question of style. Each publisher will have its own style. This is one style.

A: Chicago Style is preferred by most book publishers, so it is safest to use it for any book-length manuscript, fiction or nonfiction. On the question of the use 80s or 80’s, as used in the sample, it is plural, not possessive, and it is an issue of grammar, not style. The sentence has another problem, as well, but let me address one point at a time.

  1. "In the late 80s" as it appears in the sample, is correct, because it means all of the years (plural), not belonging to the years (possessive).
  2. I agree wholeheartedly that "In the late 1980s" would be clearer; that one point is a matter of style.
  3. If the author was saying that something belonged to that era, it would be written with an apostrophe: "One 1980’s spokesperson said…"
  4. The state should be set off by two commas, one before and one after, another issue of grammar. I’m surprised neither editor addressed that point. Correct: "In the late 1980s, I was living in Dallas, Texas, running a company…"

You touched on a point that disturbs me whenever I see it. I spot the term "writer’s conference" all the time, and that form means that writers own the conference. The correct form should be "writers conference," which means it is a conference for writers; it is not owned by writers. You’ll notice that our e-zine is called The Writers Network News, for exactly that reason. It is for writers. It is not owned by writers, although you could say it is owned by one writer—me.

Q: I have a question about the following sentence: Since many of my clients were headquartered in the Washington, DC area, I moved there to make it easier to make sales / service visits.

I have never seen spaces used with a slash, but I’m now told "it’s a matter of style." I’m also wondering if DC should be D.C.

A: As for virgules, slashes, or whatever you want to call them, I did not see the spacing issue addressed directly in The Chicago Manual of Style, but I did see that whenever a slash appears in the reference book itself, it does not have spacing before and after it, and I am certain the book follows the style guidelines it touts.

As a matter of style, though, virgules are not recommended when a word would work better. Grammar sticklers say that headquarters is a noun and should not turned into a verb (headquartered). In addition, the word "since" should be used only to show time, not to replace the word "because." I will show how I would rewrite the sentence, later.

Regarding the DC or D.C. issue, this quote comes from The Chicago Manual of Style: "It is often an open question whether or not periods should be used with particular abbreviations. The trend now is strongly away from the use of periods with all kinds of abbreviations that have carried them in the past."

The information goes on to say that if the periods are used, do not space between them for abbreviations, but do space between initials in a name. As long as the style is consistent throughout the book, either of the following is acceptable in Chicago Style: Washington, DC, is my hometown. Washington, D.C., is my hometown. Do remember that the state should be set off by commas.

Considering all the subjects I covered, here is how I would suggest the sentence be written: Because many of my clients were based in the Washington, DC, area, I moved there to make it easier to make sales and service visits.

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