Sunday Salon: The Book of the Year!

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)

Books Read

  • 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)

Currently Reading

  • 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)

New Acquisitions

  • 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

  • You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack and Their Impact on a Generation by Susannah Gora. Reviewed at Citizen Reader
  • The Tiger by John Valliant. Reviewed at Amy Reads
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39 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Book of the Year!

  1. Jenny says:

    I am embarrassed to admit how excited I was when the new edition of this came out. :p I started out finding the Chicago Manual totally frustrating, but I came around in the end and grew to love it very much. I like to have firm guidelines. :p

    • Teresa says:

      I was totally geeked out at the idea of a new edition. I was prowling the Internet for leaks on the changes and generally getting all excited.

      Like you, I did have a hard time getting used to Chicago (14th ed!), but it was mostly because I had no idea how *many* things it covered. Once I realized what was in there, I was hooked!

  2. I love that you are a grammar geek, Teresa! My grammar leaves a lot to be desired, which is why I’m looking at other areas of publishing that editorial (my preference is publicity).

    I read The Italian and A Sicilian Romance for my Romantic paper final and really enjoyed the over-the-top sensationalism of both.

    • Teresa says:

      Working in publicity would make me crazy, I think! I like being able to put my nose into a manuscript and fix it all up. Convincing people to read a particular book, not so much. I’m glad there are other people who like that part, so I can deal with all the commas and whatnot.

      I’m really excited about the Radcliffes! Glad to hear that you enjoyed them.

  3. Word Lily says:

    I don’t have the new one yet, but I agree, the new Chicago Manual is a very big deal!

    • Teresa says:

      I was so excited when the new one turned up on my desk this week. Our editorial services department got one when it first became available, and I was all sorts of jealous.

  4. Paul McQuiston says:

    I’ll admit I’m always intrigued when the new Chicago style comes out (and then I thank my lucky stars for Turabian).

  5. Rob says:

    I know a lot of people don’t get style manuals Teresa, but I absolutely do and I can appreciate your passion for them. And that’s because, as you say, it’s all about consistency, and if one is determined to write the best one can – especially on such a public platform as blogging – then the need for consistency is hugely important. I admire your blogging professionalism Teresa, I really do.

    Recently I made a resolution with myself that I’m going to spend the next year at least, perfecting my craft, and in doing so it means that I have to pay a lot of attention to the ‘writer’s reference’ shelf in my library. To be honest there’s not a lot of grammar or style books on it, and so I’m focussing on filling it.

    I knew that there was a new edition out of the Chicago Manual out, and I did look at it. But I decided in the end it would probably be too Americanised for my UK English purposes. Now that I know you have a copy Teresa, maybe you can confirm this for me.
    Warmest regards
    Rob

    • Teresa says:

      Ah, if only I could hold myself to the standards on my blog that I do at work. I’m always a little embarrassed to admit that I’m an editor here on the blog when I don’t proofread as carefully as I should and often find typos after I click on “post.” But I do try to stick to a consistent style, anyway, and I think most people understand about typos :)

      Chicago is probably too U.S.-centric for your purposes, Rob. If the differences in our styles were confined to spelling, it might be less of a problem, but rules regarding quotation marks and the use which or that in the U.S. are different. I would imagine that there’s a U.K. equivalent, though; I just don’t know what it would be.

      • Rob says:

        Exactly what I thought Teresa, the Chicago Manual is too US-centric (it’ll all be something to do with UK-English being way more superior :) I jest!!).

        UK equivalent? Emmm..it’ll probably be something like The Economist or The Guardian Style Guide, nowhere near as fancy as your wonderful Chicago Manual.

        OK, thanks again Teresa, and keep up the good work!
        Warmest regards
        Rob

  6. I’m so happy that you, an editor, are actively using a style manual. The last two ARCs I read desperately needed editing. Lots of potential greatness in the writing of both, but neither had been well edited.

    I’ve only read children’s books this week, but what wonderful children’s books they were! I’d love to have you stop in at my blog:
    http://www.readerbuzz.blogspot.com

    (And don’t panic….the post IS in English, despite all outward appearances!)

    • Teresa says:

      I’m actually pretty forgiving about errors in ARCs because I think those are often printed before the final proofing pass. I know the kinds of things I catch in the final pass on the magazine I work for, so I try to be charitable at that stage :) If, however, the errors in an ARC were particularly bad, I’d probably make a point of taking a look at the final copy, just to reassure myself that they did indeed get fixed.

  7. christina says:

    I just can’t believe that the year is almost over (again!).

  8. Caitie F says:

    I need to go out and get this and start learning the changes so that when i start applying to editing jobs I can honestly say I know it (especially since I am working as a medical proofreader right now and am living and breathing AMA).

    I don’t like that this is baby blue though. The CMS should be orange!

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t started learning the changes yet, but I’ll gradually transition over. (There are a few changes I think I’ll have to talk over with the other editors on our magazine before I start enforcing them. We may decide to continue with the old-school approach in a couple of cases.)

      It does seem wrong in baby blue. I wish I had the hard copy at hand so I could confirm whether it’s just the dust jacket that’s blue. IIRC, the book itself is still CMS orange. I shall confirm tomorrow!

  9. SFP says:

    I’ve always been an AP style kind of gal myself. :)

  10. Jenny says:

    Of course, I use MLA, but there’s a copy of Chicago on my shelf! And what does Caitie mean, it’s blue? It HAS to be orange!

    You crack me up, Teresa. Awesome geeks — sorry, amateurs — every time!

  11. gaskella says:

    I’ve just looked at some of those Q&A, and they’re great – I love the light-heartedness of them.

    I have had the Oxford style manual on my shelf for several years and have never got around to really using it. I am liking the sounds of Chicago style though – a bit more laid back and user-friendly.

    • Teresa says:

      The woman who does the Q&A is hilarious! She also has a blog called the Subversive Copy Editor, and she spent the weeks leading up to the release of the new manual “leaking” changes to the style guide on her Twitter account. Such fun!

      As I told Rob, the manual itself is U.S.-centric, so it might not suit you, and I understand that the new edition is a little more prescriptive than in the past. (And it’s a monster of a book!) Turabian, which Paul mentions, is a nice abbreviated version that’s more user-friendly.

  12. Iris says:

    I should start considering buying a style manual as well, as it is bound to be important if I ever enter an academic career..

    • Teresa says:

      A good style guide is worth having if you’re going to be doing anything writing-intensive. You’d just need to find out what the standard is in your field. (I also have a Society for Biblical Literature guide that I’ve used in theology classes. It has lots of guidance for citing ancient sources and capitalizing holy books, etc.)

  13. I must have this. Writing style can be so subjective that having a manual like this is just, well, just lovely and clarifying. Off to Amazon with me…

  14. Marieke says:

    Ah, memories. I think it was my 14th edition that got some good use, and a little bit dogeared. My 15th edition sits in a box and has never been used :( Editing was one of several career paths I’ve started down and then left off… I do miss it though.

    I know how wonderfully familiar, like an old friend, those style guides can become!

    • Teresa says:

      The 14th was my first Chicago manual, and it was filled with little sticky tabs and cross references. My old employer let us keep home outdated style manuals when the new ones were released, so I still have that one—and I have a sentimental attachment to it. I’ve used the 15th less, because I’ve internalized so many of the rules, but it’s never far from me when I’m at work. I’m sure it’ll be the same for the 16th.

  15. With all my blogging and commenting I often run through a little style and grammar drama in my head as to whether something I am writing is right or wrong. For some ridiculous reason it never occurred to me to grab my big orange copy of the Chicago Manual off the shelf and look for guidance. Sometimes I even realize I am being inconsistent but feel somewhat powerless to make it right. No doubt that is an issue for my therapist. But, you have inspired me to refer to Chicago with a little more frequency. The one book I wish every English speaker would memorize is Strunk and White. What a marvelous work of art that is.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m guessing a lot of the answers would be in Chicago. I don’t know what I’d do without it, although I will admit to a certain amount of laziness about style when I’m blogging.

      Ah, but Strunk and White—there’s a sticky wicket! I loved Strunk and White in high school and college, and it helped me tremendously when I was learning to write intelligent prose. I’ve encountered a lot of writers who would benefit from their advice! However, I get frustrated with people’s tendency to treat their generally sound, but sometimes quirky, advice as if it were universal writing gospel, never to be questioned. I’ve seen enough of that that I sometimes get a sinking feeling when S&W comes up.

  16. Michelle says:

    Throughout my undergrad and grad school programs, I never used anything but APA. Isn’t it funny to see how different books impact how we write?

    • Teresa says:

      Oddly enough, both my current and most recent employers used APA for reference lists but not for anything else. I’ve never used it for anything else although I’ve browsed the manual enough to know there’s more there.

  17. amymckie says:

    I have to say that the style guide sounds kind of interesting :) Proving what a nerd I am too. Heh. The key lime pie question is hilarious – is the whole book like that or just the Q&A?

    Also, I’m glad to see The Tiger made your list :) Thank you for the mention and the link.

  18. rebeccareid says:

    I worked as an editor during college and a few years after. I had a very tender spot for the Chicago Manual too! Now I no longer work (haven’t since my son was born), and I’m sorry to say it no longer makes me drool….

    • Teresa says:

      I’m guessing I wouldn’t find it quite so drool-worthy if I didn’t end up consulting the thing at least twice a week, often more.

      And you do work, Rebecca, just not as an editor. As far as I’m concerned, wrangling commas is far less taxing than wrangling toddlers ;)

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