This is the seventh version, fourth revision, of the Off on a Tangent style guide. The seventh version was adopted on September 1, 2017, and its fourth revision was adopted on March 26, 2020.
Content originally written for academic purposes, or for publication elsewhere, may have been written in other styles per the requirements of the class, institution, or publication. In these cases, and in the case of content written in earlier versions of the Tangent style, content may not fully conform with the current house styles.
Base Style Guide
The base style guide for Off on a Tangent is the seventeenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press (herein, Chicago), which should be followed as the prescriptive style guide except where it conflicts with the house styles described below (herein, Tangent). These house styles clarify, modify, and extend Chicago, and are organized by reference to Chicago.
Chapter 5: Grammar and Usage
5.43: Personal pronouns and gender
Clarification: Male personal pronouns (he, him) are normally used to refer to individual male members of sexually dimorphic species, including humans. Female personal pronouns (she, her) are normally used to refer to individual female members. See Chicago and Tangent 2.256 for guidance regarding individuals’ personal pronoun preferences.
(Chicago states that “the pronoun takes the antecedent noun’s gender,” but does not clearly explain that nouns referring to members of sexually dimorphic species are normally gendered according to that individual’s sex.)
5.48: Singular “they”
Modification: See Chicago and Tangent 2.256 for guidance regarding individuals’ personal pronoun preferences.
(Replaces: “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.”)
5.251: Maintaining credibility
Clarification: Credible nonfiction writing requires, above all else, a commitment to truth and accuracy. Never sacrifice truth or accuracy in the name of “political correctness” or “bias-free language.”
(Chicago encourages bias-free language as a means of “maintaining credibility with a wide readership,” but does not make it clear that truth and accuracy should take precedence when they conflict with this principle.)
5.252: Gender bias
Clarification: It is acceptable to use generic masculine pronouns when necessary for clarity, flow, or effect. However, this should be avoided if possible, especially when it adds nothing of value. Consider using common techniques for achieving gender neutrality (see Chicago 5.255). Otherwise, consider using they or their as a gender-neutral singular pronoun (see Chicago and Tangent 5.256).
(Chicago says that “many reasonable readers find it unacceptable to use the generic masculine pronoun,” but does not explicitly permit or prohibit its use.)
5.256: Gender-neutral singular pronouns
Modification: It is acceptable to use they and their as gender-neutral singular pronouns.
(Replaces: “Many people substitute the plural they and their for the singular he or she. They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground. For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.”)
Modification: Generally, the appropriate male or female personal pronouns should be used when referring to an individual whose sex is known (see Tangent 5.43). This longstanding norm best aligns with the principle of truth and accuracy (see Tangent 5.251). It may be appropriate to use incorrect or nonstandard personal pronouns if preferred by an individual subject, but this must be clearly explained to the reader. Consider not using personal pronouns in these cases, especially if they would be unnecessarily distracting. Alternatives may include rewording to avoid pronouns, replacing pronouns with names, or using the singular they and their pronouns. (Also see Tangent 8.3-A for guidance regarding names and name changes.)
(Replaces: “For references to a specific person, the choice of pronoun may depend on the individual. Some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preference should generally be respected.”)
Chapter 6: Punctuation
6.19: Serial commas
Clarification: Always use the serial or Oxford comma before the conjunction in a series of three or more.
(Chicago “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage.”)
6.42: Commas with questions
Modification: A question is sometimes included within another sentence either directly or indirectly, but not as a quotation. Such a question is usually introduced by a comma (unless it comes at the beginning of a sentence), begins with a capital letter, and is enclosed in quotes. If it is necessary to distinguish such a question from direct quotations, single quotes may be used instead of double quotes.
(Replaces the entire text of Chicago 6.42 with a modified and shortened version of paragraph 6.52 from the previous [sixteenth] edition of Chicago. In that edition, questions included within another sentence are set apart by a comma, are not enclosed in quotes, and are only capitalized “if it is relatively long or has internal punctuation.” In the current [seventeenth] edition, they are not enclosed in quotes, but are always capitalized.)
6.83: En dash as em dash
Clarification: Do not use an en dash as a replacement for an em dash, except in vertical lists where an em dash might otherwise be used as a replacement for a colon.
(Chicago allows the “British usage” of using en dashes in place of em dashes.)
6.130: Vertical lists—capitalization, punctuation, and format
Modification: In both ordered and unordered lists, always capitalize the first word of each list item.
(Replaces: “If the list is unordered, and unless the items consist of complete sentences, each item carries no end punctuation and each can usually begin lowercase [except for proper nouns]. For lists whose items require more prominence, capitalization may instead be preferred; choose one approach and follow it consistently.”)
Chapter 7: Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds
7.1: Recommended dictionaries
Modification: For general matters of spelling, refer to the following primary dictionaries or their online equivalents:
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary by Merriam-Webster
- Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary by Merriam-Webster
For further definitions or alternative spellings, refer to the following secondary dictionaries or their online equivalents:
- Webster’s New World College Dictionary by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- New Oxford American Dictionary by Oxford University Press
- Oxford English Dictionary by Oxford University Press
(Replaces the entire text of Chicago 7.1, which states that the recommended dictionary is “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary [or its ongoing online-only revision] and the latest edition of its chief abridgment, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [regularly updated online and referred to below as Webster’s],” and then, for further definitions or alternative spellings, “another standard dictionary such as the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.”)
7.22: An alternative practice for words ending in “s”
Clarification: Use the recommended practice of creating singular possessive nouns by adding an apostrophe and the letter s, even if the last letter in the noun is also an s, as described (with some exceptions) in Chicago 7.16-21.
(The archaic practice of “simply omitting the possessive s on all words ending in s” is “not recommended” in Chicago.)
7.80: Terms like “web” and “[I]nternet”
Correction: The word “Internet” usually refers to a single, specific wide area network (WAN), and in those cases it is a proper noun and should be capitalized (see Chicago 5.6). The word is sometimes used in a generic sense to refer to a type of WAN, which should be called an internetwork. The Internet is an internetwork.
(Chicago states, “Terms related to the [I]nternet are capitalized only if they are trademarked as such or otherwise constitute the proper name of an organization or the like.” It incorrectly treats the word “Internet” as a generic noun.)
Chapter 8: Names, Terms, and Titles of Works
8.3-A: Name changes (new section following 8.3)
Chicago 8.3 states that the names of living persons should correspond to the person’s preferred usage. This principle applies to persons who have changed their names, even if they have not made that change in official records. Always primarily use the name preferred by the individual. (Also see Chicago and Tangent 2.256 for guidance regarding individuals’ personal pronoun preferences.)
For private figures, now-unused former names should be mentioned only when necessary.
For public figures, well-known former names may be referenced to inform the reader that they refer to the same person. When writing about past events it is often appropriate to refer to the name that the individual was using at the time, especially regarding awards, publications, and film or television credits that appear under that name.
8.22-A: U.S. civil titles (extension of 8.22)
The civil title styles described in Chicago 8.22 are extended in Tangent and should be used at the first reference to any elected or appointed U.S. political official, whether at the federal, state, or local level. Parenthetically state the official’s political party and, if applicable, the political jurisdiction they represent.
Abbreviate U.S. political parties as described in Chapter 10 of Chicago and Tangent. Spell-out the names of uncommon political parties not listed in Chapter 10. Identify candidates and officials with no party affiliation as independent (I).
Include the official’s represented state, city, county, district, precinct, or ward (if applicable), separated from the political party with a single hyphen or dash. Abbreviate U.S. states and territories using their two-letter postal abbreviations (see Chicago 10.27). Label numbered legislative districts with the state abbreviation and the district’s ordinal numeral. Spell-out the names of cities, counties, districts, precincts, and wards.
Examples of this style:
- President Donald Trump (R)
- Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)
- Representative Jennifer Wexton (D-VA 10th)
- Loudoun Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles)
8.22-B: Foreign civil titles (extension of 8.22)
Apply the same style described in 8.22-A to foreign political officials, but spell out the names of all political parties, even if they share a name with a U.S. political party. Also spell out the names of all political subdivisions.
Examples of this style:
- Russian President Vladimir Putin (United Russia)
- U.K. House of Commons Minister Mark Field (Conservative-London and Westminster)
8.22-C: Former civil titles (extension of 8.22)
Former political officials should be identified at first reference using the civil title styles of Tangent 8.22-A and 8.22-B, prefaced with the word “former.” When an individual has held multiple civil offices, the highest of those offices should be used. In the U.S., offices may be ranked according to the following order of precedence:
- President of the United States
- Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
- Presidential cabinet secretary
- Member of the U.S. Senate
- Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
- Governor of a U.S. state
- Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
- Other state-level elective office (such as Lieutenant Governor)
- Justice of a U.S. state supreme court or equivalent
- U.S. federal court judge
- Member of a U.S. state legislature
- Mayor of a city or equivalent
- State or local judge
- Member of a city council or county board or equivalent
- Other offices, or highest military rank earned
8.22-D: Civil titles and changes of political party (extension of 8.22)
The civil title style described in the sections above should refer to the political party under whose banner that official was elected to the office with which they are being identified. If the official subsequently changed party affiliation, this may be noted in the text. If relevant, previous party affiliations may also be noted. If they were elected as an independent but caucus with or otherwise affiliate with a party while in office, this, too, may be noted in the text, but the parenthetical reference should still label them as an independent.
8.202: Ordering candidates in election result reporting (new section)
In news-style and tabular reporting of election results, list all candidates who appeared on the ballot in alphabetical order by last name, without regard for major or minor status or the ordering on the ballot itself.
8.203: Categorizing and ordering candidates in election endorsements (new section)
Each candidate appearing on the official ballot in an election should be categorized as a “major candidate” or “minor candidate.” Major candidates are those expected to receive five percent or more of the popular vote. Minor candidates are those expected to receive less than five percent of the popular vote.
Write-in candidates should be excluded from consideration unless they are expected to receive five percent or more of the popular vote. A write-in candidate expected to receive twenty-five percent or more of the popular vote should be categorized as a “major candidate.” A write-in candidate expected to receive five percent or more of the popular vote, but less than twenty-five percent, should be categorized as a “minor candidate.”
Evaluate the candidates in the following order:
- Any incumbent seeking reelection, regardless of major or minor status
- Major candidates, alphabetized by last name
- Minor candidates, alphabetized by last name
Chapter 9: Numbers
9.3: An alternative rule—zero through nine
Clarification: Use the general rule of spelling out whole numbers from zero through one-hundred, and numerals for numbers above one-hundred, as described in Chicago 9.2, with exceptions as described in the rest of chapter 9.
(Chicago states that, “Many publications, including those in scientific or journalistic contexts, follow the simple rule of spelling out only single-digit numbers and using numerals for all others. . . . ”)
Chapter 10: Abbreviations
10.4: Periods with abbreviations
Modification: Use periods with abbreviations that include one or two capital letters (e.g., “U.S.”), except when appearing in parentheses as a reference to a U.S. state’s postal abbreviation, a time zone, or a political party. Use no periods with abbreviations that include three or more capital letters, even if the abbreviation also includes lowercase letters.
(Replaces: “Use no periods with abbreviations that include two or more capital letters, even if the abbreviation also includes lowercase letters.”)
10.70: Current major U.S. political parties (new section)
Parties whose candidates have earned five percent or more of the popular vote in any of the two most recent elections for President of the United States, U.S. Senate from Virginia, or Governor of Virginia are considered “major parties” and may be abbreviated as follows:
- D: Democratic; incorporates:
- Jacksonian (1825-1828)
- Democratic (Jackson) (1828-present)
- L: Libertarian (1971-present)
- R: Republican; incorporates:
- Free Soil (1848-1854)
- Opposition (Northern) (1854)
- Republican (Lincoln) [a.k.a. Grand Old Party, GOP] (1854-present)
- National Union (1864-1868)
10.71: Current minor U.S. political parties (new section)
Parties whose candidates have earned 0.1% or more of the popular vote in any of the two most recent elections for President of the United States, U.S. Senate from Virginia, or Governor of Virginia are considered “minor parties” and may be abbreviated as follows:
- C: Constitution; incorporates:
- U.S. Taxpayers’ (1991-1999)
- Constitution (1999-present)
- G: Green; incorporates:
- Association of State Green Parties (1996-2001)
- Green (2001-present)
10.72: Former major U.S. political parties (new section)
Parties whose candidates have earned five percent or more of the popular vote in multiple past elections for President of the United States, U.S. Senate from Virginia, or Governor of Virginia, but that have since disbanded or no longer draw 0.1% or more of the popular vote, are considered “former major parties” and may be abbreviated as follows:
- Anti-Administration (1789-1791)
- Republican (Jefferson) [a.k.a. Democratic-Republican] (1791-1825)
Democratic (Southern); incorporates:
- Constitutional Democratic (Breckinridge) (1860)
- Democratic (Davis) [a.k.a. CSA Democratic] (1861-1864)
- States’ Rights Democratic (Thurmond) [a.k.a. Dixiecrats] (1948)
- American Independent (Wallace) (1968)
- F: Federalist (1789-1824)
- Perot independents (1992)
- Reform (1995-present)
- Social Democratic (Debs) (1898-1901)
- Socialist (Debs) (1901-1972)
- Socialist (Zeidler) (1973-present)
- SD: Social Democratic (Waldman) (1936-1957)
- National Republican [a.k.a. Anti-Jacksonian] (1825-1833)
- Whig (1833-1854)
- Opposition (Southern) (1858-1860)
- Constitutional Unionist (1860-1861)
10.73: Other notable U.S. political parties (new section)
Parties whose candidates have earned more than five percent of the popular vote in only one election for President of the United States, U.S. Senate from Virginia, or Governor of Virginia, or that are otherwise notable, are considered “other notable parties” and may be abbreviated as follows:
- AM: American [a.k.a. Native American, Know-Nothing] (1844-1860)
- CM: Communist (1919-present)
- PL: People’s [a.k.a. Populist] (1891-1908)
- PR: Progressive (Roosevelt) [a.k.a. Bull Moose] (1912-1916)
- PO: Progressive (La Follette) (1924-1934)
- RE: Readjuster (Virginia) (1877-1895)
- VC: Virginia Conservative (1965)
Chapter 13: Quotations and Dialogue
13.43: Unspoken discourse
Modification: Thought, imagined dialogue, and other internal discourse (also called interior discourse) should be enclosed in quotation marks. If it is necessary to distinguish internal discourse from direct or spoken discourse, single quotes may be used instead of double quotes.
(Replaces: “Thought, imagined dialogue, and other internal discourse [also called interior discourse] may be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference.”)
Off on a Tangent Addendum
T.1: Compliance with canon law
Comply with all duly enacted laws and norms promulgated by Holy See, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Bishop of the Diocese of Arlington. As a media outlet, particularly comply with the provisions of Inter Mirificia, the decree on the media of social communications, which says in part:
“In society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent.”
T.2: Compliance with civil law
Comply with all duly enacted, constitutionally permissible laws, ordinances, and regulations of the United States of America, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Loudoun County, Virginia. There is no obligation to comply with laws, ordinances, and regulations that are enacted outside of the constitutional authorities granted to the government by the affirmative consent of the people, or those that conflict with the higher laws of God and nature.
Grammar, style, and spelling corrections, as well as minor edits to improve clarity, do not need to be noted unless they cause a substantial change of meaning. Changes to news pieces and factual corrections to opinion pieces, as well as grammar, style, and spelling corrections that cause a substantial change of meaning, must be noted clearly and credited appropriately. A post that is being live updated should be clearly marked as such and may be updated and corrected as new information becomes available, without noting each individual change, until the post is marked final.
T.4: Weights and measures
Use United States standard weights and measures as defined by U.S. law and by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST defines and recognizes both the International System of Units (S.I. or metric system) and the U.S. Customary Unit System (imperial system). The use of either system is acceptable. The S.I. system should be preferred, except in the following cases:
- Use feet to indicate aircraft altitude.
- Use nautical miles and knots to indicate air or sea distance and speed.
- Use miles and miles-per-hour to indicate U.S. highway distance and speed (but use kilometers and kilometers-per-hour for highway distance and speed in other countries, unless that country also uses the U.S. system).
- Use degrees Fahrenheit to indicate temperature (but use Kelvin or degrees Celsius in scientific contexts).
Measure time according to U.S. law and U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) standards for the Eastern Time Zone (ET; UTC-5), including daylight saving time (UTC-4) from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.
Mark important holidays with a special image and message appropriate for that holiday. If two or more holidays occur on the same day, those listed in higher categories take precedence over those listed in lower ones. The following holidays are to be observed:
days of obligation in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington
- Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God – January 1
- Ascension of the Lord – Sunday following forty days after Easter
- Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – August 15
- All Saints – November 1
- Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary – December 8
- Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) – December 25
of fasting and abstinence in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington
- Ash Wednesday – forty-six days before Easter
- Good Friday – Friday before Easter
celebrations of the liturgical year in the United States
- Resurrection of the Lord (Easter) – first Sunday following the first full moon after March 21
- Pentecost Sunday – fifty days after Easter
- Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ – Sunday following sixty days after Easter
- First Sunday of Advent – fourth Sunday before Christmas
important Catholic observances in the United States
- Day of Prayer for Legal Protection of Unborn Children – January 22
- Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord – one week before Easter
- Holy Thursday – Thursday before Easter
- Holy days of obligation in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington
- Wedding Anniversary – May 28
- Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr – August 14
- Birthday – October 28
- New Year’s Day – January 1
- Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. – third Monday in January
- Washington’s Birthday – third Monday in February
- Memorial Day – last Monday in May
- Independence Day – July 4
- Labor Day – first Monday in September
- Columbus Day – second Monday in October
- Veterans Day – November 11
- Thanksgiving Day – fourth Thursday in November
- Christmas Day – December 25
- New Year’s Day – January 1
- Lee-Jackson Day – Friday before the third Monday in January
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day – third Monday in January
- George Washington Day – third Monday in February
- Memorial Day – last Monday in May
- Independence Day – July 4
- Labor Day – first Monday in September
- Columbus Day & Yorktown Victory Day – second Monday in October
- Veterans Day – November 11
- Thanksgiving – fourth Thursday in November and the Friday following
- Christmas – December 24 and 25
- U.S. federal holidays
- Chinese New Year – day of the new moon between January 21 and February 20
- Flag Day – June 14
- Patriot Day – September 11
- Election Day – Tuesday after the first Monday in November
- Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day – December 7
T.7: Other grammar and usage references
After consulting the “Grammar and Usage” chapter (see Chicago 5) and recommended dictionaries (see Tangent 7.1), the online or most recent editions of other grammar and usage guides may be consulted, but their guidance need not be treated as prescriptive. The following are general-purpose U.S. English grammar and usage guides in common use:
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
- Fowler’s Concise Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Jeremy Butterfield
- Garner’s Modern English Usage by Bryan Garner
- Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage by Merriam-Webster
T.8: Other style references
If Chicago is silent, the online or most recent editions of other style guides may be consulted, but their guidance need not be treated as prescriptive. The following are general-purpose U.S. English style guides in common use:
- Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law by the Associated Press
- GPO Style Manual by the U.S. Government Publishing Office
- MLA Handbook by the Modern Language Association
- Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association by the American Psychological Association
It may also be appropriate to consult other topic-specific style guides, though their guidance also need not be treated as prescriptive.
All versions of the Off on a Tangent style guide have been reliant upon a published style guide. Versions 1-4 were based on the Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook. From version 5 onward they are based on the University of Chicago Press’s Chicago Manual of Style.
- Version 7 (September 1, 2017 to present): Chicago Manual of Style (17th Edition) and house styles
- 7.4: March 26, 2020 to present
- 7.3: December 2, 2019, to March 25, 2020
- 7.2: February 7, 2019 to December 1, 2019
- 7.1: September 27, 2018 to February 6, 2019
- 7.0: September 1, 2017 to September 26, 2018
- Version 6 (January 1, 2017 to August 31, 2017): Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition) and house styles
- Version 5 (June 1, 2012 to December 31, 2016): Chicago Manual of Style (16th Edition)
- Version 4 (approx. 2009 to May 31, 2012): MLA Handbook (7th Edition)
- Version 3 (approx. 2003 to approx. 2009): MLA Handbook (6th Edition)
- Version 2 (approx. 2000 to approx. 2003): MLA Handbook (5th Edition)
- Version 1 (approx. 1995 to approx. 2000): MLA Handbook (4th Edition)