Ding Dong: the Death Dagger Is Dead

AMA Manual of Style, section 2.3.2, has an ominous subheading: “Death.” I’ve quoted it below:

Death. If an author of an article has died before the article goes to press or is posted online, a death dagger (†) should follow the author’s name in the byline, and one of the following footnotes should be inserted after the author affiliation footnote.

†Died November 17, 2005.


Okay. That’s super-goth and all, but…why? Is that useful information for a reader? Does it serve any purpose other than a moment of recognition that life is fleeting, memento mori, etc?

Also, the life of a scholarly article is long—why single out the author who died during a relatively narrow window (from acceptance to publication)? We’re all going to die someday, including every byline author. (Sorry if you came to AMA Style Insider for happy feelings. Here is a picture of a puppy.)

At a recent stylebook committee meeting, we decided to kill the death dagger. (Get it?) If authors want to note that a coauthor is deceased, a note can be put into the acknowledgment section instead.

Interestingly, the dagger symbol is sometimes called an obelus. A variant on this symbol was probably used by Homeric scholar Zenodotus to critically mark lines in manuscripts that were of dubious attribution. The Oxford English Dictionary uses it to note that a word is obsolete. It seems a bit cruel to use the same typographical mark to denote a person as dead and to mark a word as obsolete—-but I suppose I can see the connection.—Brenda Gregoline, ELS



Questions from Users of the Manual

Q: I’ve been searching the 10th edition to see where the list of footnote symbols from the previous edition is given and I cannot find it. Is that because the lowercase alphabet letters are now going to replace these symbols, as mentioned on page 91?

A: Yes, almost right. We have changed our policy on using superscript symbols for table footnotes and are now using superscript lowercase letters. There are more of them and they are not so “odd.” However, we are continuing to use the old “footnote symbols” for bottom-of-the-page footnotes (see p 43). We only show 2 here…the asterisk and the dagger…because it is not likely that more would be needed (this is the only type of bottom-of-page footnotes that we use in our journals), but if you were to require more, the “old” list would still apply.

Q: I haven’t been able to locate in the 10th edition the place where it says that the symbols “greater than” and “less than” should not be used in running text. (It’s at the top of p 256 in the ninth edition.)

A: You are correct. We neglected to include that this time, but the policy is the same. The examples on page 399 illustrate this, but having the specific statement would be good. It’s a bit like the policy we have of reserving the use of the hyphen for ranges to within parentheses and in tables (and, of course, in references, for the page ranges) and not using it in running text (P values are another exception). It all has to do with “elegance.”—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: Would you hyphenate “white coat hypertension”?

A: We would follow the latest edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. The 11th edition recommends inclusion of a hyphen: white-coat hypertension.

Q: If 2 footnote symbols appear next to each other in a table, should any punctuation be introduced between them?

A: Yes. As with the policy for citation of a reference citation and a footnote symbol side by side (see page 95 in the print), add a comma. So, you might have superscript a,b; or superscript a,c-e.

Q: I would like to know how to cite your 10th edition in the style recommended by the 10th edition.

A: Glad to oblige:

Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.

Q: Section 3.10 advises beginning the subtitle of a journal article cited in a reference list with a lowercase letter. Is this true even if the title ends with a question mark?

A: Yes. Here is an example, edited to style:

Mayer AP, Files JA, Ko MG, Blair JE. Do socialized gender differences have a role in mentoring? academic advancement of women in medicine. Mayo Clin Proc. 2008;83(2):204-207.

The same policy would apply if the title were to end with an exclamation point, although those are rare in scholarly article titles!—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: Does the change of footnote symbols from asterisk, dagger, etc (9th edition) to superscript lowercase letters (10th edition) apply not only to tables but also to the title page?

A: No, this change does not apply to the title page. Typically, the only footnotes used on the title page would be the “death dagger” (see section 2.3.2) and the asterisk at the end of the byline if the byline is the name of the group, not all members of which qualify for authorship (see p 15, bottom).

Q: In your information on databases, the link you provide for HUGO no longer links. Do you have the new URL?

A: Yes, since publication of the 10th edition of the manual, the URL for HUGO has changed. The new URL is http://www.genenames.org. We have included this in a new batch of errata posted on the companion website in January 2008 and it will be corrected in the third printing.

Q: In medical writing, is it preferred to spell naive with or without the umlaut over the i?

A: We would follow the latest edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. The 11th edition shows that both spellings are equally correct but, in such cases, to maintain uniformity among all the articles in our family of journals, we arbitrarily select the first spelling given: naive. Also, in the 10th edition of our manual (p 422), it indicates that “in general, English words in common usage should be spelled without the diacritical marks.”—Cheryl L. Iverson, MA

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q:    If a person has multiple advanced degrees, should the medical degree always be listed first, eg, MD, PhD?

A:   We would advise following the author’s preference as far as the order in which degrees are listed.

Q:   I know that journal names are typically italicized in their expanded form, eg, Journal of the American Medical Association. Should the abbreviation also be italic, eg, JAMA?

A:   Yes. The same policy applies to book titles and their expansions. See, for example, International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision and ICD-9 in the list in 14.11.

Q:   On page 500, in the list of journal abbreviations, is there a reason that the journal Transplantation is spelled out in full as Transplantation and yet other journals whose titles include that word abbreviate it as Transplant?

A:    Yes, there is a reason. See the sentence on page 479 advising that “Single-word journal titles are not abbreviated.”

Q:    The AMA Manual of Style says that tables should be able to stand independently and not require explanation from the text. Could you clarify “stand independently”? Our publication has taken this rule to an extreme, often adding lengthy definitions of terms already provided in the text. One recent example added 15 footnotes to a single table!

A:   As with so many things editorial, this requires judgment.  We were thinking about things like this:

  • Expansion of any abbreviations, given in the text, provided again in a single footnote to the table.
  • Explanation of things that might not be apparent from the tables (eg, what the various groups are if they are only identified as “group 1, group 2, etc” in the table).
  • Explanation of how to convert units from conventional to SI (or the reverse), if this is important in your publication/to your audience.
  • Explanation of some statistical method that would likely not be familiar to your readers without some information—the bare bones, not a lengthy explanation. If a lengthy explanation is necesssary, simply refer the reader to the relevant section or subsection of the text.
  • Explanation of a phrase used for shorthand in a table stub or column head that might not be clear if all you were looking at was the table (eg, if a column head is “Unstable Vital Signs,” explain in a footnote the specific items and values that this refers to).

It truly is a question of judgment and I suspect that 15 footnotes in a single table is taking it too far.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q:  Do you recommend end point or endpoint?  I have folks dying on their grammatical swords over this and thought you might have an opinion.

A:  We follow Dorland’s and use end point.  Replying quickly so as little blood as possible is shed.

Q:  I failed to find guidance in the Manual on correct use of the apostrophe with plural compound nouns, eg, the possessive of mothers-in-law.  What would you advise?

A:  You are quite right that we don’t include any examples that address this specifically and it would be helpful to do so.  (A thought for the next edition—or an annotation for section 8.7.3 if you are an online subscriber.)  I would recommend mothers-in-law’s, as in mothers-in-law’s first meeting.  The Chicago Manual of Style also recommends this (section 7.23):  my sons-in-law’s addresses.

Q:  Where is the style going on the treatment of Web site?  We use Web site but are seeing it more and more frequently as website, or web site, or Website.

A:  JAMA and the Archives Journals are still sticking with Web site, but the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is recommending website.  So, it appears that things are, indeed, shifting but we have not shifted yet!

Q:  We’re having a debate about the order of footnotes in a table.  Are they ordered left to right, top to bottom?  Or are they ordered by where they fall in terms of the table components (eg, title, column heading, row heading, field) and then left to right, top to bottom?

A:  There’s a great example in the Manual on on page 93 (Table 10).  In that table, which has a raft of footnotes, you’ll see that the order is basically from top to bottom and, within that, from left to right…as we expect readers would move through a table as they were reading it.  That said, there is nothing sacred about this and a publication could certainly establish a different policy (eg, with the table body, priority could be given to footnotes attached to table stubs, so that if you had footnotes a and b in stubs high up in the table and then footnotes c, d, and e in rows below this but NOT in the table stubs, and then footnote f in a later stub, you might decide to make the stub footnotes a through c [renaming f to c] and then the footnotes within the body of the table d through f. )—Cheryl Iverson, MA