[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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The Oppenheimer Alternative

Author's Notes for the Copyeditor

Robert J. Sawyer

(Please do NOT set in type)
I update these notes with every novel. Even if you've previously copyedited one of my books, please review the notes below. Thank you.

Feel free to regularize any deviations from the following standards, but please query on all other changes.


My standard reference for spelling and word usage is The American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition (unabridged), 2011 (American Heritage is listed in CMS 16 section 7.1 as an acceptable choice).

I've decided I much prefer AHD to WEB 11, which had been my choice for some earlier novels. Note that AHD relied on a usage panel of professional writers, including, when he was alive, Isaac Asimov; the panel was chaired by linguist Steven Pinker.

You can access this dictionary online for free:


However, although The Chicago Manual of Style may advise to “normally opt for” the first spelling listed in the dictionary of choice, I consider the selection between variant spellings (such as “aesthetics” and “esthetics” or “advisor” and “adviser”) to be the author's prerogative. I prefer the former spellings in each of the foregoing pairs, and also prefer “café” to “cafe,” “cliché” to “cliche,” “cross-section” to “cross section,” “naïve” to “naive,” “naïveté” to “naiveté,” and “disruptor” (well established as the usual spelling in science-fictional contexts) to “disrupter.” If my preferred spelling is listed in my preferred dictionary, whether as an equal variant (which American Heritage shows following the word “or”) or an unequal variant (which American Heritage shows following the word “also”), please don't change it to another form. Note that I use both the terms “atomic bomb” and “atom bomb” deliberately; please do not regularize.

If suggesting a change to my usage, please query with CMS edition and section number or Words Into Type page reference.


This novel is set mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. Spelling conventions have changed in the last seventy-five-odd years, largely at the bullying behest of the Chicago Manual of Style. To retain the period flavor of this novel, I've deliberately chosen to hyphenate many prefixes and suffixes that in contemporary works might be set solid. For instance, J. Robert Oppenheimer's actual job title, in all historical documents, was “Co-ordinator of Rapid Rupture” (not “Coordinator”).

To add to the overall feeling of historical authenticity, I've chosen to use these spellings throughout:

  • anti-electron
  • anti-matter
  • anti-Semite
  • co-author
  • co-operation
  • co-ordinates
  • co-ordinator
  • counter-clockwise
  • counter-espionage
  • counter-intelligence
  • cross-examining
  • extra-terrestrial
  • Hallowe'en
  • house-warming
  • in-falling
  • lower-case
  • multi-armed
  • off-site
  • post-war
  • pre-eminent
  • pre-emptive
  • re-evaluation
  • pre-war
  • re-examine
  • semi-circle
  • space-time
  • table-top
  • time-like
  • twig-like
  • war-time
  • world-line
  • world-view

For the same reason, I'm also retaining the diphthong in archaeology and palaeontology, and writing policy maker, space flight, and space ship as two words.

Today, we would commonly write of a voyage “from the Earth to the Moon and then on to Mars.” However, prior to the Space Age, our planet and its natural satellite were almost always referred to by uncapitalized nouns, and I've adhered to that usage in the text: “from the earth to the moon and then on to Mars.”

Those long-gone decades predate modern attempts (of which in other contexts I heartily approve) toward gender-neutrality and gender-inclusivity in language. Therefore, I'm adhering here to the old practices of using blond for males and blonde for females (as both adjective and noun), and using only “he” where today we might write “he or she.”

I'm also treating “Jr.” as a parenthetical, as it was back then: Leslie Groves, Jr., not Leslie Groves Jr. (which is what the 17th edition of CMS would have us write).

I've chosen to include the periods in acronyms and academic degrees, as they would indeed have been commonly styled this way in the 1940s and 1950s:

  • A.E.C.
  • A.U.
  • F.B.I.
  • I.A.S.
  • I.D.
  • J.P.L.
  • M.D.
  • M.E.D.
  • M.I.T.
  • N.K.G.B.
  • Ph.D.
  • R.H.I.P.
  • S.S.
  • T.N.T.
  • U.C.B.
  • U.K.
  • U.N.
  • U.S.
  • U.S.A.


In the acronym-heavy scene in which Feynman is reading the dossier on von Braun, I've deliberately left out all the periods (a) for readability and (b) because this particular real historical document rendered them that way.


I use italics for:

  • Emphasis

  • The titles of publications, movies, and television series

  • Some verbatim transcriptions of thoughts, especially when there might be ambiguity about whether the text is thought or narration

  • All non-English words and phrases being consciously used as non-English, and all Latin phrases (which are usually affectations) even if they appear in English dictionaries: “au revoir” and “en route” (French), “a cappella” (Italian), and “per se” (Latin) are all italicized. Please note however that I do not italicize foreign-source single words (not phrases) that have been wholly co-opted into standard English, and whose usage doesn't constitute an affectation: words such as “milieu” or “liaison” (French) and “trek” (Afrikaans) are not italicized, but bon voyage — being a phrase — is. (My rationale is that “au,” “revoir,” “en,” “cappella,” “bon,” and so on are not valid English words on their own, and only the italicizing linking them to the preceding or following text turns them into a meaningful phrase.)

The Chicago Manual of Style 14th Edition (1993), section 5.4, says, “Generally, punctuation marks are printed in the same style or font of type as the word, letter, character, or symbol immediately preceding them.”

I agree with this. However, starting with CMS's 15th Edition (2003), section 6.3 (“Punctuation and font: primary system”), changed this, saying: “All punctuation marks should appear in the same font — roman or italic — as the main or surrounding text, except for punctuation that belongs to a title or an exclamation in a different font.” (A similar point is made in CMS's 16th edition in section 6.2.)

I prefer the older standard set by CMS's 14th Edition (or as still allowed for print publications under CMS 16 section 6.4 (“Punctuation and Font — aesthetic considerations”)) as it does indeed respect the aesthetics of how type actually looks on the printed page. In particular I want question marks, exclamation marks, colons, and semicolons immediately following italicized words to always be italicized, along with any closing quotation mark that follows them: Look out! not Look out! and “Say what?” not “Say what?” or “Say what?


Although the names of sailing vessels and spaceships are italicized, if they are being used in the possessive form the following apostrophe and the letter s are not italicized: “the Titanic's crew.”

I do not italicize an em dash even if it immediately follows italicized text, unless the em dash is the end of a paragraph or is included in italicized dialogue.

If the first word in a sentence is italicized, and that word is preceded by a quotation mark, I also italicize that quotation mark.

When letters of the alphabet appear as words in the manuscript, I've italicized them except (per CMS 16 section 7.63) when the letters are meant to suggest shapes: He drew a T in Scrabble while he was wearing a T-shirt. However, I don't italicize letters when they are used for spelling: “That word is spelled c-a-t.”


I use serial (Oxford) commas.

I use commas before terminal too and around internal too, but I don't use commas with close appositives when the name is a single word: I write “her husband John” but, except in long lists (as in the Acknowledgments), “her husband, John Smith.”

I deliberately do not precede “suddenly” with a comma; the comma negates the rapid effect. I write, “Suddenly a bomb exploded,” not “Suddenly, a bomb exploded.”

Except for Biblical and Classical names, I form the possessive of names ending in s by adding apostrophe-s.

I use three (never four) periods for ellipsis points. My rationale is that an ellipsis in dialog indicates a trailing off (an incomplete sentence, which, since it is incomplete, has no terminal punctuation). Likewise, sentence fragments ending in an em dash (denoting an interruption or abrupt change of thought) are also incomplete and therefore are not followed by terminal punctuation.

I almost always hyphenate compound adjectives (phrasal adjectives).

However, I do not treat color specifications as components of compound adjectives. I write “green phosphor line,” not “green-phosphor line,” “orange vinyl upholstery,” not “orange-vinyl upholstery,” and so on.

Please note that according to CMS 15 section 7.90, compound chemical terms are not hyphenated, even when they are being used as adjectives: it is correct to write, as I do, “carbon dioxide gas.”

I do not usually employ the genitive or possessive case with gerunds in constructions such as in the following examples (although in dialogue individual characters may deviate from this); pedantry may be appropriate in academic contexts, but it can be disruptively formal in fiction. I write “Despite Atlanta also being home to CNN” not “Despite Atlanta's also being home to CNN,” and “Recall Dr. Goldsmith giving testimony” not “Recall Dr. Goldsmith's giving testimony.” Please do not adjust my usage.

I have set as closed pairs or triplets of initials in a person's name: “I.I. Rabi,” not “I. I. Rabi,” for Isidor Isaac Rabi; “E.O. Lawrence,” not “E. O. Lawrence,” “J.R.R. Tolkien,” not “J. R. R. Tolkien,” and so on.


I'm aware of the supposed prohibition against split infinitives; however, I don't agree with it. Please do not adjust my usage; I prefer to boldly go where a great many writers have gone before ...


I use lower-case for the first letter in a sentence following a colon.


I spell out all numbers that begin sentences; except for dates, spell out zero through one hundred (even when followed by the word “percent”), and use numerals for 101 and beyond, including years (“2019”), their two-digit abbreviations (“’19”), and precise times (“9:30 a.m.”); when an ordinal date is mentioned in dialog, I spell it out as a word: I write “March 15, 2019,” in normal text, but in dialog would write, “Beware March fifteenth — it's the Ides of March!”

However, when using slang terms referring to rotational turns, I always spell out “one-eighty” and “three-sixty,” and in dialog when I want to differentiate the pronoun, I write “a hundred and fifty,” rather than “150” (which would normally be read as “one hundred and fifty”).

I don't usually spell out numbers containing decimal points, even in dialog (I use “123.45” rather than “one hundred and twenty-three point four five”).

I do not use apostrophes to pluralize numbers: “1990’s” is possessive of the year 1990 (“1990’s best novel was ...”), not a reference to the decade that ran from 1990 to 1999 (I write: “The 1990s were a wonderful time”).


The term “damn it” is stronger than “dammit.” I use both deliberately for specific effect; please do not adjust my usage.


I use “um” and “umm” to represent verbalized pauses of different lengths. I use both deliberately for specific effect; please do not adjust my usage. I treat “hmmm” as speech, and don't italicize it, unless I'm doing so for emphasis (in other words, sometimes it is italicized and sometimes it isn't, and that's a deliberate choice on my part).


Even when writing in the past tense, I sometimes use the terms “now” and “here.” This is unexceptionable grammatically: The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, gives the following as one of the definitions of “now,” employing a past-tense example: “At this point in the series of events; then: The ship was now listing to port.”

I use “and then” (including sometimes to begin a sentence) when perhaps either just “and” or “then” could have been employed; I do this for reasons of cadence and personal style. Please do not modify my usage.

I have a fondness for stream-of-consciousness narrative devices, including ending one paragraph with “and” followed by an em dash, and beginning the next with an em dash and “and” (with a lowercase a) followed by a description of a suddenly changed circumstance or mental state. These devices are employed deliberately; please do not modify them.

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