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    Entries in Chicago Manual of Style (2)


    Serial Commas

    A much-debated issue in writing is whether to use a serial comma. The serial comma has been known by many names, including the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma. If you’re wondering what exactly I mean by a serial comma, just look at the previous sentence. There are three items in a series (i.e., the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma) in the sentence, and the serial comma is the comma that appears after “the Harvard comma.”  According to The Chicago Manual of Style, three or more items in a series (e.g., eggs, butter, and milk) should have a comma after the second to last item in the series.

    The serial comma is used to avoid confusion, as in the following sentence: “I like all kinds of ice cream flavors, like strawberry, coconut and chocolate chip and raspberry.” Without a serial comma, it’s unclear whether you are talking about coconut and chocolate chip ice cream or chocolate chip and raspberry ice cream. Adding a serial comma will never cause confusion, but omitting it might. In my opinion, a serial comma is an important tool for clarity in writing.

    There are some style guides that do not use the serial comma, most notably the Associated Press style guide. That is the guide used in writing for newspapers, where space is an issue. In book writing, however, the serial comma should almost always be used. I have personally never run into a publishing house that doesn’t use a serial comma, although I’m sure they exist. Also, the authority on writing for books is The Chicago Manual of Style, which calls for a serial comma.

    There is one notable exception, though, that often trips writers up. The serial comma should not be used when you use an ampersand (&). Ampersands usually should not be used in the text of a book but are often used in titles, ads, and other supporting materials. If you are called upon to use an ampersand, remember that a serial comma isn’t needed.



    Capitalization is one of the trickiest issues authors can face when writing. If they want to emphasize something, frequently they'll put the words in all capital letters. Many times authors are also unsure of when to capitalize certain words, especially when it comes to Christian writing.

    The first issue, when to put words in all capital letters, is easy to address. You shouldn't do it. According to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), the book editor's bible, for emphasis, words should be set in italics rather than capitalized. So, for example, instead saying, "I'M SO HAPPY!" you would say, "I'm so happy!"

    The second issue, when to capitalize certain words, is trickier, especially when it comes to Christian writing. In general, most words are not capitalized. The CMOS follows a "down" style of capitalization, which calls for being light on capitalization in most circumstances. To quote CMOS:

    Chicago generally prefers a “down” style—the parsimonious use of capitals. Although proper names are capitalized, many words derived from or associated with proper names (Brussels sprouts, board of trustees), as well as the names of significant offices (presidency, papacy), may be lowercased with no loss of clarity or respect.1

     Here are a few examples of how to treat words writers frequently think should be capitalized:

    • the army (but Army of the Potomac) 
    • a doctor (but Dr. Kresse)
    • the president (but President Lincoln, Mr. President)
    • My dad (but "Hi, Dad.")

    As you can see, it can be quite confusing. It gets even more complicated for Christian writers, who often feel like holy concepts should be capitalized. The Christian Writer's Manual of Style (CWMS), however, has a long list of words that should or should not be capitalized. A few examples are:

    • The Twelve (but the twelve disciples)
    • The apostle Paul (but the Apostle to the Gentiles)
    • The Word (all words referring to the Bible are capitalized, including Scriptures, Good Book, etc. However, when using Bible in a figurative sense, as I did when referring to CMOS as the editor's bible, the word Bible is lowercased. Also, when using a derivative of the word, such as scriptural, the word is lowercased)
    • The Law (when referring to the Pentateuch) but law of Moses and Mosaic law

    Even more controversial than this is whether to capitalize pronouns referring to God (he, his, himself, etc.). The CWMS does not call for capitalizing these pronouns, but many of the Christian publishers I work for do. I personally prefer to capitalize them out of respect. I believe this is a judgment call on the part of authors, but understand that if your book is published by a Christian publishing company, you may have to defer to their style. In addition to the CMOS and CWMS, most publishing companies have their own in-house style guides that call for capitalizing or not capitalizing certain words based on their experience. For example, one company I work with never capitalizes the name Satan, even though it's a proper name, and also calls for capitalizing other odd words, such as Heaven.

    The best way to sort out which words need to be capitalized and which do not is to go to an expert, like a freelance editor, who is familiar with the terms and how to use them.



    1. The University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003) 311.