A style guide for all occasions?

A monthly entertainment for me is reading the Chicago Manual of Style’s Q&A.

This month a reader sent in the following style question:

Q. My fashion expert daughter insists that denim does not go with “almost anything,” as I say it does. What is your opinion? Does denim match almost anything, including other colors and other fabrics, e.g., silk?

A. Finally, a real style question! If only we Chicago manuscript editors were a little more fashion-forward . . .

In deference to Jakob Nielsen’s admonition to post polished articles rather than shallow, hastily written postings, I am reprinting here a slightly edited version of my article on CMS originally published in CommLink, the Atlanta STC chapter newsletter.

Gems from the Web Site of The Chicago Manual of Style 

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is the definitive reference for writers, proofreaders, authors, publishers, and editors. Weighing in at almost 1000 pages, the 15th edition contains hundreds of rules on grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Many an editorial dispute has been quickly settled with the words, “What does Chicago say?”

CMS is also a soup-to-nuts (or manuscript-to-dust jacket) guide to book production. In the new edition you’ll find a diagram of the book production process, with references to the relevant chapters of CMS at each stage. New material on publishing for journals and electronic format was added as well.

Monthly Q&A

If you’re a word nerd like me, check out the monthly Q&A on the CMS Web site . Writers and editors from all over the world contact CMS about the finer points of writing. When a publishing team cannot agree on the placement of a hyphen or comma, they appeal to the oracle at CMS to issue its judgment.

Lay people may find these exchanges a good cure for insomnia, but I relish them. It’s fun to see what’s puzzling my fellow scribblers and how CMS would handle it. For example, when asked the best way to denote the title of a book or movie in a text-only medium such as a list-serve, CMS suggested placing an underscore on either side of the title: “Last night I saw _Star Wars_ with my friend.” Perfect!

I’m a strong believer that “there is no such thing as a stupid question,” but some of the questions sent to CMS test the limits of my faith. The witty replies reveal a sense of humor you might not expect from this venerable institution. One person asked whether to begin an e-mail with “Hi Mom!” followed by an exclamation point or, “Dear Mom,” followed by a comma. After replying that it didn’t much matter, CMS quipped, “and I think I can speak for moms everywhere in saying that we’ll take whatever we get in this regard.” Another writer who asked why an ellipsis contained only three dots received this response: “How many dots would you like? You can have as many as four if you put an ellipsis after a period. I don’t know of any significance behind the choice of three. Perhaps the number gradually came to be popular and then was standardized in style sheets and grammar for the sake of consistency, as well as to prevent . . . . . . . silliness.”

To questions about spellings or meanings of words, the CMS gently reminds us that “Dictionaries are good for this type of question.” The response was a bit sharper this month when someone asked how to spell “cell phone”: “Any writer who has deadlines should also have a dictionary. I always swear I’m not going to look up words for people, but it’s like being a mom and picking up socks—something just makes me do it. It’s ‘cell phone.’ Please buy a dictionary—and pick up your socks.”

Origins of CMS

The origins of CMS are described in the History of the Manual section of the Web site. The manual was born in the composing room at the University of Chicago Press in 1891. In those days, type was set directly from the handwritten manuscripts submitted by university professors. The typesetters created a proof, and the proofreaders copyedited the proof. To ensure consistency, they created a style sheet from notes “jotted down at odd moments for the guidance of the first proofreader.”

After continual revision and improvement, the sheet was circulated as a standard for the university as a whole. By 1903 it had grown into a pamphlet, and three years later it matured into a book. A facsimile of the first edition—a scant 122 pages—is posted on the CMS Web site. Compare this to the hefty 2003 volume and you’ll appreciate the work of the editorial staff over the last century. The first edition is a joy to read, a window on the history of writing, editing, and publishing.

The appendix includes three articles:

  •  Hints to Authors and Editors

  •  Hints to Proofreaders

  •  Hints to Copyholders

“Copyholder?” This word does not even appear in the index of the 2003 CMS. Like typesetters, copyholders have faded into the past, first eliminated by efficiency experts and then made obsolete the advance of technology. The copyholder held the original manuscript and read it out loud to the proofreader, who entered the corrections on the typesetter’s proof. “Enunciate your plural s’s distinctly,” counsels the early Manual. The politically incorrect social relations of the period are clear: The copyholder is always “she” and the proofreader “he.” One final hint to the copyholder reads, “Remember that you are the housekeeper of the proofroom, and take pride in its neat and orderly appearance.”

Written in a tone that will remind you of Miss Manners, the Hints to Proofreaders are priceless. More essential and practical tips are dispensed in four pages than you’ll find in an entire shelf of self-help books at Borders. Consider these tidbits:

 “Don’t stultify yourself and discredit the office by asking foolish questions on the proof. The author will be thankful for any sensible suggestion you may make, but will resent trivial criticism.”

 “Make a study of the ’personal equation’ in the case of those individuals (editors and others) with whom you as a proofreader will constantly have to deal. One person may expect of you as a matter of course what another might regard as an unwarranted interference.”

For an eloquent study in humility, read the brief Preface to the first edition. Here the authors acknowledge the manual’s imperfections and explain why the rules and regulations in the manual “cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law,” but instead “must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

Here are a few more excerpts: 

“Concerning the character and content of the book, little need be added. Its origin, its primary aim, and its limitations as outlined above will suggest the bounds of its usefulness. It does not pretend to be exhaustive; a few things must be taken for granted, and the traditional territory of the dictionary has only exceptionally been invaded. It does not presume to be inflexibly consistent; applicability, in the printing-office, is a better test than iron-clad consistency, and common-sense a safer guide than abstract logic. It lays no claim to perfection in any of its parts; bearing throughout the inevitable earmarks of compromise, it will not carry conviction at every point to everybody…. ·

“As it stands, this Manual is believed to contain a fairly comprehensive, reasonably harmonious, and wholesomely practical set of work-rules for the aid of those whose duties bring them into direct contact with the Manufacturing Department of The Press. If, in addition to this its main object, this Manual of Style may incidentally prove helpful to other gropers in the labyrinths of typographical style, its purpose will have been abundantly realized.”

If you have tackled the thankless task of creating a style guide for your organization, you may find comfort in these words.



One Response to A style guide for all occasions?

  1. Kathleen K-P says:

    I greatly enjoyed this! I also had no idea the CMS had this service. How nice that some experts are still allowed to have character. It’s a wonderful thing to have the chance to learn and laugh out loud, all at once. I’m glad they allow their readers some amusement, even when there is nothing in particular to be learned. However, given the opportunity, I think I would have answered the clothing style question, too!

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