Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our Century-Old Grammar Watchdog: The Chicago Manual of Style

Since its first edition came out in 1906, The Chicago Manual of Style has set the standard for formal, grammatical, American English writing. Published by the University of Chicago Press, the sixteenth edition—which is 104 years younger than the original—will soon yield place to the seventeenth, currently in the works.

We all know grammar rules have undergone major changes since 1906. What keeps such an old style guide relevant in today’s very different and rapidly evolving media world?

A book that covers the gamut of editorial practice from grammar and usage to document preparation and from novel writing to preparing a doctoral thesis must by its very nature be massive, as well as intimidating. Add to that the fact that it also includes full explanations of proper references, footnote/endnote citations, bibliography, and extensive information on formatting and you have a serious writing tool. Can you even imagine researching, preparing, editing, and proofing such a book as a full-time job? Keep in mind that the current edition exceeds 1000 pages!

According to Wikipedia, the sixteenth edition can be had in hardcover or online. (The fifteenth is also available online.) “The online edition includes the searchable text of both . . . editions with features such as tools for editors, a citation guide summary, and searchable access to a Q&A, where University of Chicago Press editors answer readers’ style questions. An annual subscription is required for access to the content of the Manual,” but the Q&A can be accessed free. If you think you might find the CMOS useful, you can take advantage of the 30-day free trial subscription offered on the Chicago Manual of Style website. You can also tour the site, an excellent idea if you want to get a real understanding of the power offered by this comprehensive writing and editing tool.

Historically, the time lapse between editions has varied from one year to twenty years. The variations are based on the speed with which the publishing industry changes, and now ranges between five and ten years. The tremendous growth of the Internet and resultant resources that are now available to writers and all others has opened doors never before available to the masses, and the CMOS has kept up with the times and the needs of the writing public. Likely, those who worked on that first edition in 1906 never imagined where their fledgling publication would be today. But it has withstood the test of time by growing and changing with the times to meet the ever-evolving needs of the publishing industry.

Do you use The Chicago Manual of Style? Have you visited the website? Why not take the tour today and tell us what you think?


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Linda Lane and her editing team want to help writers learn to write well. She will soon be opening an online bookstore of family-friendly books that promote literacy and encourage renewed interest in reading for pleasure. Visit her editing team at www.denvereditor.com


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16 comments :

  1. I began using the Chicago Manual when I first became an editor back in the 70s. I tried using the online manual for the updated version, but it's not the same as having the book in hand--you know, turning pages, finding it fall open to something that catches the attention? (Besides, the sixteenth edition has a lovely cover.)

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  2. It does, indeed, have a lovely cover, Normandie. I, too, use the hard copy. I've stumbled upon lots of great information that I wasn't looking for when I thumbed through the pages -- information that later proved quite useful.

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  3. I love the Chicago and use it frequently. Like you and Normandie, I much prefer the print edition, whose heft is a reminder of its weighty contents. Web technology is replete with ugly neologisms (like the "blogger" at the head of the current page) or misleading appropriations, such as, the misnamed "browser." I always find it odd that true browsing is best served by flipping pages in a hardback or running a finger along a shelf in a book store.

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  4. The first time I saw this book, it was on my boss's bookshelf (we worked for the Zoological Society of Florida), and I thought it was about proper dressing for business. I learned otherwise when our department was in charge of the newsletter. I bought my own copy after I started writing, but frankly, I've never been able to find what I need, and if I do stumble across it, I can't understand it. One of my publishers said it was for "formal" writing, and since she published commercial fiction, she felt we should use her house style rather than CMS for some things.
    Haven't looked at the website.

    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  5. I haven't looked at the website either, since it's sitting on my desk. I do love a reason to look away from the screen. Unlike Terry I can almost always find what I need and find the explanations/examples easy to follow (maybe there is such a thing as "editor brain," lol).

    I have to congratulate you though, Linda, for writing a post on a dry subject (ooh—a style reference book!) that was actually quite interesting!

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  6. I use the CMOS ... but only as a back to The BRP.

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  7. Well done and interesting post, Linda. Like Kathryn, I wondered how one was going to address what could be a boring topic. I have an old manual and have relied on the online one, but way you and some of the others have described using the hardcopy, I may break down and get the latest version when it comes out.

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  8. The bible for this editor! I can almost always find what I need. The latest is a must with all the Internet-related inclusions, but it's also fun to compare editions. I've known publishers who poo-pooed the CMOS and I knew right off they weren't companies I'd ever recommend to writers. That said, I find Grammar Girl's website a useful resource, too. Faster and a lot more fun. I do compare the two on occasion.

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  9. Oh, and Terry... you hit on the basis for our own Style Maven feature written by the lovely Audrey Sillett Lintner. ;)

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  10. Christopher, we adore you and that latest comment! Hahaha. Have we ever invited you to write a humorous post for the BRP? Perhaps we should. We could use some more chuckles around here.

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  11. I love it, too, Larry, and I haven't even begun to peruse many of its features. Yes, browsing in the REAL sense of the term is a joy. You probably would rather not hear my frustrations and disappointments about "browsing" on the Internet. :-)

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  12. Terry, Chicago can be intimidating. I remember my first reaction when I held it in my hands. It was bi-i-i-i-g! Could there really be that many grammar rules? Then I began to peruse its pages, and my intimidation gave way to awe at the incredible amount of information between its covers.

    One challenge to using it is the way you find the information you're seeking. I grew up with Roget's International Thesaurus, and I learned early how to find my topic in the back of the book and then locate the information I sought with the numbering system. This two-step process was a bit more time consuming, but it also puts different possibilities that had not occurred to me right in front of my eyes. I'm grateful for that early experience because Chicago quickly seemed like an old friend.

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  13. I agree, Kathryn, it's easy to use once you get accustomed to the way it works. Thank you for your kind words about the post not being dry. Maybe that's because I'm fascinated by language use -- and abuse. :-)

    You're great, Christopher. So many times you make my day.

    Maryann, if you do break down when the 17th edition comes out, you'll be amazed at how quickly it becomes one of the most used tools in your writing and editing toolbox.

    Dani, thanks for reminding me that I want to check out the Grammar Girl's site. I read a review of the book recently, and it definitely sounds less formal (and more fun) than Chicago.

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  14. I've heard good things about The Chicago Manual of Style by many people. It's a popular resource.

    Morgan Mandel

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  15. The Chicago Manual is woefully out of date. Digital publishing became a reality eight years ago, in November 2007. Nothing of any value to digital author/publishers has made its way into the Chicago Manual in all those years. If ever there was a time for rapid revision, we are in it. Meanwhile, without such guidance, the standards of digital publishing are plunging toward the abyss.

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    1. The 16th edition of the CMS does contain some references to digital publishing, but my perusal of them suggested the majority of those references may pertain to the physical elements of publishing rather than the rules of grammar. It seems to me the technology involved in book publishing shouldn't make a significant difference in the grammar rules that help to create the kind of good writing that keeps readers coming back for more of an author's works. If those rules are applied to all books published, regardless of method, why would the standards in digitally published works plummet? Maybe I am missing the point here; please feel free to nudge me back on track if I am.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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