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A Word, Please: Chicago changes its tune

We learn about grammar, usage and spelling mostly by reading. That’s our reference point every time we say that something “looks wrong.”

For example, the final S in “I’m going to the Thomases’s house.” When we see something like this, our eye sends an alarm that tells our brains to start applying whatever knowledge it holds. Then we remember that plurals like cats and the Thomases are made possessive by tacking on just an apostrophe: the cats’ house, the Thomases’ house. All that starts with reading.

But every once in a while, the people overseeing what you read change the rules, as the “Chicago Manual of Style” did recently when it released its 16th edition. “Chicago,” as you may recall, is the rule book followed by most book publishers and many magazine publishers, too. It differs a lot from AP style, which sets the standard for most news writing.

Chicago’s new guidelines will soon start to show up in the magazines and books you read. Eventually, your exposure to Chicago style will become the basis for what “looks wrong” to you. But a heads up about the changes in store will make them that much smoother. So here are some major changes in the style guide.


Imagine you’re writing about the musical “Oklahoma!” In Chicago style, just as before, you would put that in italics. That differs from newspaper style, which hearkens to the days when printing presses weren’t equipped to make italics. So we use quotation marks. But that’s not the issue that concerns us today. We’re interested in that exclamation point.

Chicago used to say never to use a comma after a title ending with an exclamation point or question mark. “We saw Oklahoma! which was excellent.” Chicago’s recommendation has changed: “The title of a work that ends in a question mark or exclamation point should now be followed by a comma if the grammar of the sentence would normally call for one.”

Now imagine that you’re talking about a word, for example “neato.” You’re putting it in quotation marks to make clear that you’re talking about it as a word — singling it out. If you needed to make it plural — for example: My son crammed eight “neatos” into a single sentence — Chicago used to suggest you use an apostrophe in that plural: “neato’s.”

No more: “The plural of a word or phrase in quotation marks is now formed without an apostrophe — that is, with the addition of s or es within the quotation marks,” the manual’s publisher now advises.


Chicago has also cleaned up some confusing rules for possessives. The style guide advocates using an apostrophe plus an S for most possessives, including singular words that end in S: “boss’s.” But Chicago used to have different rules for any word ending in an “eez” sound, like Euripides, or any word ending in a silent S, like Descartes.

No more: “In a return to the practice in the 14th edition, names that, like Descartes, end in an unpronounced S form the possessive like other names — with an apostrophe S.…Names like Xerxes or Euripides now form the possessive in the usual way — with an apostrophe S.”

Here’s a style change that is more likely to catch your eye. Chicago used to say that the tech term “web” took a capital W, as in “Web page.” No more. The W in most of Chicago’s “webs” is now lowercase, though the proper name World Wide Web is an obvious exception.

Unlike “web,” Chicago says that “Internet” should continue to start with a capital.

There are more changes. But these should give you a good idea of what’s in store for some of your reading material.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at