Mary E. Laur
on The Chicago Manual of Style

July 21st, 2010 by EVENTS

One of the most useful traits an editor can possess is an openness to surprises, and no book I’ve ever worked on has surprised me more than The Chicago Manual of Style. Little did I suspect back in 1992, when I first read the Manual paragraph by paragraph for a basic manuscript editing class, that I would eventually join the team responsible for keeping this classic, century-old publication current. Nor would I have guessed in 1998, when I helped create the first manuscript for the 15th edition by slicing apart a bound copy of the 14th, that nine years later we would initiate the 16th edition by extracting the XML files used for the full-text HTML version of the 15th. And yes, a late adopter of technology like me may never have learned to fling around such terminology of the digital age if not for my work on the 16th edition, which will be published this summer. Go figure.

Still, the biggest surprises I’ve encountered in connection with the Manual have come in the responses of those who use the book, or at least understand its place in the canon. More often than not, people who hear that I work on the Manual—even those from outside the worlds of academia and publishing—instantly recognize the title, a rare treat for an editor in scholarly publishing. Sometimes they tell me stories of college days spent wrestling with proper footnote format or of interoffice battles over comma use, both of which likely involved recourse to the Manual. Inevitably, they ask me questions. Their curiosity increasingly centers on the broad issues that preoccupy those of us on the revision team, such as how changes wrought by technology affect everything from editing processes to citation style. But the question I still field most frequently concerns a matter of much smaller scale:

After a period or other sentence-ending punctuation mark, should I leave one space or two?

The Manual’s answer to this question is simple enough—one—but I have learned from experience that everyone who asks it wants me to say two. Often I suspect they know my answer in advance and hope to pick a fight with me. Even before I became part of the Manual revision team, I once had exactly this argument with my graduate advisor, who eventually relented and accepted my master’s thesis minus the extra spacing. Now, I am just old enough to understand that anyone who took a high school typing course through the 1980s internalized “period-space-space” through countless hours of practice drills, and to many of these people, “period-space” just looks wrong. I assure them that sophisticated computer fonts automatically adjust for extra space after a period as typewriters never could. If all else fails, I remind them that the Manual’s answer refers specifically to typeset matter and they’re welcome to keep using two spaces in their personal writing if they so choose. I suspect they do.

Although I still puzzle over the widespread attachment to this particular convention, I have gradually come to see it as a manifestation of the same force that underlies the long-term success of the Manual: a deep devotion to standards in the realm of the written word. Anyone willing to pick a fight with me over an extra space between sentences must believe that that space matters, and at least on this point, I am loath to challenge that belief. For all the hand-wringing about our imminent decline into a text-messaging, “LOL” culture devoid of standards, I see evidence every day that people still care about getting the details of their writing right.

So much so, in fact, that when we do tinker with long-standing rules or encourage flexibility in their application, we risk revolt. In preparing the 15th edition, we decided to err on the side of flexibility—offering, for example, three acceptable methods of using ellipses to indicate omissions in quoted material, ranging from “simple” (using three spaced dots) to “rigorous” (marking every element omitted with a system of brackets, dots, and spaces). We consciously substituted the term guidelines for rules in many paragraphs and encouraged our users to “break or bend rules that don’t fit their needs, as we often do ourselves.” Our users were not pleased:

But if you’re offering three options, how do I know which one is right?

There it was again, so why was I surprised? By a ratio of about three to one, the e-mails and listserv postings ran passionately against the flexible approach that had seemed eminently reasonable to me. Over time, however, my defensiveness yielded to doubt. Perhaps we had emphasized context at the expense of clarity; perhaps in delegating to our users a choice among multiple acceptable options we had abdicated our own authority. Perhaps. We certainly took the criticism to heart as we began work on the 16th edition, which recommends but one method of using ellipses, albeit one that accounts precisely for the circumstances in which additional surrounding punctuation is appropriate. High on the list of selling points in the back cover copy we trumpet the book’s “firm rules and definitive recommendations.”

Undoubtedly they will not be firm or definitive enough for some users, while to others they will just look wrong. Already we have received comments through the ubiquitous social media sites to several “sneak peeks” we provided at the new Manual content. One change that has sparked particular controversy closes a loophole in a rule concerning the possessive form of names ending in s. Curiously, the Manual’s longtime insistence on the form James’s house rather than James’ house has never seemed to inspire the same passionate resistance as the “period-space” rule, despite upending the early grammatical training of the same demographic group; yet the new rule eliminating the few remaining pronunciation-based exceptions to this pattern has caused quite a stir.

That’s right—thanks to the Manual, a spirited discussion of the change from Xerxes’ armies to Xerxes’s armies is currently raging on Facebook. LOL.

Mary E. Laur is senior project editor for reference books at the University of Chicago Press

Posted in Editors Speak


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