I know that there are more than three months left in the year, but I can say with confidence that I have just this week gotten a copy of what will be the most significant publication of the year for me. However, it’s not so much a book to read, nor is it one I would recommend to everyone. It’s the book that guides me through many day-to-day decisions in my work. That book? The 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style.
Before I got my first job as an editor almost 10 years ago, I had no clear sense how important a style manual is. In college, I had used the Modern Language Association’s style guide, but only to figure out how to format my reference lists. (I don’t even remember now if it covered more than that!) It didn’t take me long after I started editing to realize that a detailed style guide is essential, and I doubt there’s one out there that’s more detailed than the Chicago manual, published by the University of Chicago Press. Even publishers that use another manual for reference lists may end up turning to Chicago (as we affectionately call it) to answer questions about hyphenation, capitalization, and punctuation. My own employer, for example, uses the American Psychological Association’s guide for reference lists, but Chicago for almost everything else.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about using a style manual is that style is different from grammar. Grammar is more focused on rules. Although those rules do change over time, there is still a sense of right and wrong when it comes to grammar. Subjects and verbs must agree, sentences must be complete (unless one is using a fragment for effect), modifying phrases must not dangle, and commas must not be spliced. The Chicago manual does cover some grammatical issues, particularly ones where standard usage is changing, but it’s not a grammar book. (Whether certain questions are questions of style or of grammar is open to debate.)
Style is different. It’s more about consistency than correctness. Writers and editors might have different ideas regarding whether to use a serial (or Oxford) comma, whether to capitalize the name of certain historical eras, and whether to hyphenate words or phrases like nontoxic, premed, and user-friendly. In many cases, either choice would be equally clear to readers, and both possibilities might look equally correct. However, writers and editors cannot just make these decisions willy-nilly, based on what “looks right.” Different people have been taught different “rules,” and what looks right to one person might not look right to another person. As the style enforcer on a magazine with multiple editors, I find that this happens a lot. It’s a blessing to have a detailed guide to point to when opinions differ. A style guide helps us maintain consistency. We may not always follow Chicago style, but departing from Chicago requires us to make a deliberate decision. If we aren’t following Chicago, we need to have a good reason. (We have our own house style guide that explains where we depart from Chicago and gives guidance regarding terms related to our particular field that aren’t covered in Chicago.)
It’s probably not hard to imagine why the publication of a new style guide would be a big deal. How many of the guidelines will change? What will I have to unlearn or relearn? For the most part, changes from one manual to the other are minor and small in number. The biggest one with the latest update is the decision to style website as a single, lowercase word, instead of the more old-fashioned Web site. Interestingly, my employer’s in-house style guide committee (of which I’m a member) decided to go with the newer usage just a couple of months before the update in the new Chicago manual was announced. Style geeks will of course debate some of the changes endlessly, but for readers, few of the changes will make a huge difference. It’s an update, not a transformation.
If you’d like a taste of how Chicago style works and the kinds of questions that style geeks like me come up with, take a look at the Chicago Style Q&A. The questions are fascinating, and the answers are often a bit cheeky. Here’s a recent example:
Q. I wonder which you think is best: Key Lime pie, Key lime pie, or key lime pie?
A. I’m actually partial to pecan, but if you’re asking about spelling, consult a dictionary: Webster’s 11th Collegiate prefers lowercasing, noting that “Key” is often capped.
So there you have it. The most important book of the year in my world is not a novel that made me weep, or a book that changed my whole way of thinking. But this is a book that will probably not sit on my shelf for more than a day or two at a time because I will be consulting it so often. Definitely my book of the year.
Notes from a Reading Life (Sept. 6–19)
- The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass.
- The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart (abandoned)
- Misery by Stephen King
- My Invented Country by Isabel Allende (audio)
- Great House by Nicole Krauss (review coming closer to Oct. 12 publication date)
- The Wolves of Andover by Kathleen Kent (abandoned). This is the prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, which many people loved but I never read. I gave up after 85 pages because I just wasn’t getting into it. I may give it another try before the Nov. 8 publication date, but I’m inclined to think it’s not my thing.
- The Convent by Panos Karnazis (review coming closer to Nov. 8 publication date)
- The Cause by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (Morland Dynasty #23)
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol 1 by M.T. Anderson (audio)
- The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (reread)
- Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 by Roger Daniels (church book club)
- Four Ann Radcliffe novels I won in a Twitter giveaway from Oxford World’s Classics. The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, A Sicilian Romance, and The Romance of the Forest. I read an abridged version of Udolpho in college and enjoyed it, so I’m eager for more Radcliffe.
On My Radar