The CMS syndrome
In its second century and 15th edition The Chicago Manual of Style weighs in on rules for wordsmiths. With style.
Say Chicago to an editor, proofreader, indexer, or publisher—anyone who regularly deals with words in print—and the reference is clear. The authority being cited is a work long known on its spine and in catalogs, but not in the vernacular, as A Manual of Style. It wasn’t until 1982, preparing to publish the 13th edition, that the University of Chicago Press bowed to common practice and renamed its trademark product The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS in shorthand citation). This August, as the 15th edition debuts with a first-run printing of 150,000 copies, the Manual is still Chicago, and it still lives up to its subtitled billing as “The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers.”
How essential? Three weeks before its official August 15 print date, the title ranked No. 25 on Amazon.com’s sales chart (compared to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at No. 1).
The Manual is more than essential. With some 1 million copies of the first 14 editions sold, it’s the press’s No. 1 all-time bestseller, and its success has almost as much to do with style as substance. The Manual is quintessentially American, equally devoted to straightforward, paint-by-numbers, how-to instruction and do-your-own-thing individualism.
Think oxymorons. Think, along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, of “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” Think the Ten Commandments and the Prodigal Son. Think of women’s magazines where the editorial content is one-part diet plans, one-part high-calorie recipes. In sum, think rule making and rule breaking.
Some users revel in the rules. In the Magazine’s November 1925 issue a reviewer praised the eighth edition’s black-or-white approach: “It is a model of clearness and definiteness. Alternatives are left out; questions are decided; for a guide that leaves many loopholes is not a guide at all.” But many readers like the wriggle room, delighting in the guide’s philosophy, expressed in the preface to the 14th edition (1993), that “although the purpose was, and remains, to establish rules, the renunciation, in the preface to the 1906 edition, of an authoritarian position in favor of common sense and flexibility has always been a fundamental and abiding principle.”
Flexibility is the byword of the 15th edition. Approximately seven years in the making (the exact date cannot be easily determined; no sooner is one edition in press than notes are begun for the next), the project was led by Linda Halvorson, the press’s editorial director for reference publishing, assisted by Margaret Mahan, the press’s former managing editor, along with current editors Margaret Perkins and Anita Samen. Aided for the first time by a 14-person advisory board that included Chicago English professor David W. Bevington and physics professor Robert Wald, along with a listserv of managing editors from other university presses, the edition reflects how publishing has changed in the past decade. Most important, as Mahan notes in the preface, “Computer technology and the increasing use of the Internet mark almost every chapter.”
That means new material on electronic publications, an updated chapter on preparing mathematical copy, advice on how to cite electronic sources (including defunct Web sites), and information outlining contemporary design and production processes. As in the 14th edition the “Key Terms” section of the production chapter still begins with AA, or author’s alterations, but now ends with XML, “An abbreviation for Extensible Markup Language. A subset of the SGML standard, used for structuring documents and data on the Internet. See also SGML.”
The Internet’s influence is also seen in the layout, designed by Jill Shimabukuro. While the bold orange-red dust jacket remains, gone are the 14th edition’s traditional type faces (Times Roman and Baskerville), replaced by a modern face: Scala, designed in 1994. The explanatory text and the rules themselves—which retain their orderly numbering, from 1.1 (“A historical note.”) through 18.149 (“Authors, titles, and first lines combined.”)—continue in serif type. (A word to nonwordsmiths, the Magazine’s text is in a serif font, with short lines stemming from and at an angle to the upper and lower ends of a letter’s strokes.—Ed.) But examples of each rule stand out in sans serif type (see sidebar text at right) as do new, descriptive headings above each numbered paragraph of advice. Adding to the contemporary look is the use of a second color—a light blue reminiscent of a copy editor’s pencil.
The Internet’s biggest influence is found not in the design of the 956-page tome (selling for $55, as compared to $.50 for the 201-page first edition) but in the Manual’s online presence. A new Web site (www.chicagomanualofstyle.org) offers a “Search the Manual” feature: “Input the terms of your search, and you will receive a list of the numbers and subheadings of all paragraphs in the print edition that contain the words or phrases that you are looking for.” It’s quicker than paging through the print index and, in theory, should bring up more rules to consult. The site also offers registered users (you don’t need to buy the book to play) a searchable Q & A section, and, in the months ahead, discounts on an array of electronic products (a searchable CD-ROM edition should be available as early as fall 2004).
The guide’s Web presence is hardly new. As far back as 1995 stylistically challenged readers have been able to e-mail their most pressing queries to the CMS “answer lady” (the identity of the press staffer who pens the answers is kept secret to avoid a flood of direct e-mails and calls). In the early days every query received a personal response, always calm and reassuring (“That’s a tough one,” a response to this writer once began). Frequently asked questions and answers were posted on the press’s Web site; early this year, with monthly traffic hovering at 20,000 visits, personal responses became a thing of the past; each month representative questions and answers get posted.
Those questions generally are concerned with the stuff of minor detail. At the top of the current “New Questions and Answers” posting, for instance, is this weighty query: “Which is correct: ‘so and so, four months pregnant’ or ‘so and so, four months’ pregnant’?”
The answer is the former. And if you know why (“The apostrophe is reserved for the genitive case”), you’re likely to be the type of reader who ordered your new edition months ago and who will turn first to the new chapter on American English grammar and usage (by Bryan A. Garner, author of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage). Next you’ll flip through the chapters with an experienced eye, checking to see if the rules you love (or love to hate) are still in effect.
To aid less-detail-oriented readers, the Manual’s press kit lists some of the changes made. Here are a few of the shockers (the release, written in the authoritative yet comforting tone of the Manual itself, helpfully lists the CMS rules affected):
Punctuation and font. Preference is now given to setting commas, semicolons, periods, and colons in the font of the surrounding text. Question marks and exclamation points are (as before) italic only if they belong to the word they follow. The traditional system is fully acceptable, however. 6.3–7.
Dates. The month-day-year form (e.g., July 1, 2003) is now preferred; the day-month-year form (e.g., 1 July 2003) is a fully acceptable alternative, especially in documentation that includes numerous precise dates. 6.46.
Possessive versus attributive forms. A strong preference is expressed for retaining the apostrophe in plural forms (e.g., employees’ cafeteria, consumers’ group). 7.27.
Time of day. Lowercase p.m. with periods is now preferred to small-cap pm, though the small-cap form is fully acceptable. When small caps are used, there is no need for periods. 9.42, 15.44.
Abbreviations for states and provinces. The two-letter abbreviations used in postal codes for states and provinces are now recommended, with the traditional forms (Mass., Conn., and so on) an option. 15.29–30.
There’s a pattern here, and it goes deep to the heart of the reference’s style: preference, preferred, recommended, acceptable, option. Sometimes, a strong preference. The Manual suggests the rules, but the rules change to reflect usage.
Ruing the change announced in 8.34 (“Titles of dukes, earls, and such are dealt with in a more British way...” rather than in the more democratic, lower-case style long favored by the Manual), Anita Samen explains that the shift reflects a need to follow the prevailing practice: “It no longer seemed to make sense to be the only one.” Indeed, one hesitant finger held to the wind in the 14th edition—a suggestion, buried in a footnote on page 76, recommending the “‘revival’ of the singular use of they and their”—has disappeared in the 15th without a trace, revealed as a usage whose time has not yet come.
For a work known as “the bible,” handed down from generation to generation of wordsmiths with the solemn fervor of an initiation rite, such willingness to listen to its audience is unusual. And it’s part of the Manual’s charm. Although there is a reason for every rule and recommendation (Samen, who first met CMS as a junior editor at St. Martin’s Press, soon learned that “if I deviated, it was at my peril,”), there is also a willingness to let you do it your way, based on your own experience.
Ah, but there’s the catch. Experience counts.
So when the chips are down, the deadlines draw near, and the jury is out on matters of citation, punctuation, and style, remember that you have a friend. An older, wiser, seen-it-all friend who still prefers the serial comma, who still believes in hyphenating adjective-noun combinations when they’re used as adjectives, and who now offers three approved methods of dealing with ellipsis points. That’s Chicago.