Chicago Style, XV ed. and Merriam-Webster, 11th ed.

Style on Trial: Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. and Merriam-Webster, 11th ed.

January 19, 2005
Presented by Amy Einsohn and Patricia Egan
Organized by John Maybury
Notes by Bonnie Britt

When the day is long and I can't remember what Sister Martha Marie drummed into my head about the subjunctive case (was I? were I?), I turn to Amy Einsohn's The Copyeditor's Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications to conjure a discussion of whatever plagues my troubled mind.

At the January forum, Patricia Egan joined Amy to weigh the relative merits of the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style and the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

Arcane stuff, right? You bet! But entertaining, too.

Not since a college teacher hung by his fingertips from the outside of a first floor window sill to shout—to those of us sitting in the classroom—what he knew about dangling participles have I been so amused by the lively presentation of the vagaries of the English language and its sometimes confusing components.

With a background in technical and financial communications, Patricia Egan has taught at the UC Berkeley Extension Certificate Program in Technical Communication, and she's developed course work in proposal writing.

Patricia patiently fielded questions from an overflow crowd that filled the meeting room at Mechanic's Institute and spilled into the adjoining cafe. She examined a range of available alternatives to CMS15 and MW11, all the while pulling style book after style book and dictionary after dictionary, like magic, from a seemingly bottomless knapsack. Patricia advocates taking CMS15 and MW11 with a grain of salt, and supplementing judiciously with other style resources such as Words Into Type. Her patient and didactic speaking style contrasted perfectly with Amy who brought drama and laughter to the packed event with a passionate acting out of passages from Louis Menand's article "The Nightmare of Citation" (The New Yorker, October 6, 2003).

Relevant passages from the Menand article follow. Sadly, it is not possible to reproduce Amy Einsohn's theatrics in print; you had to be there. But you can catch her act, "Pesky Critters and Bugaboos of English Grammar," at Editcetera on three Mondays in April and May 2005. Details at

"The problem isn't that there are cases that fall outside the rules. The problem is that there is a rule for every case, and no style manual can hope to list them all. But we want the rules anyway. What we don't want to be told is 'Be flexible,' or 'You have choices.' 'Choice' is another of modern life's false friends. Too many choices is precisely what makes Word such a nightmare to use, and what makes a hell of, for example, shopping for orange juice: Original, Grovestand, Home Style, Low Acid, Orange Banana, Extra Calcium, PulpFree, Lotsa Pulp, and so on."

"On the important matter of the correct abbreviation of United States, though, the authors strike a note that recurs, all too disturbingly, in other places in the Manual. It is the note of permissiveness. 'U.S. traditionally appears with periods,' they advise. And then—it's almost a non sequitur—'Periods may nonetheless be omitted in most contexts. Writers and editors need to weigh tradition against consistency.' The mental fuse is shorted. You had always thought that tradition was consistency."

"Some people will complain that the new Chicago Manual is too long. These people do not understand the nature of style. There is, if not a right way, a best way to do every single thing, down to the proverbial dotting of the 'i.' Relativism is fine for the big moral questions, where we can never know for sure; but in arbitrary realms like form and usage even small doses of relativism are lethal. The Manual is not too long. It is not long enough. It will never be long enough. The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it."

While Chicago 15th is the latest, it is not without controversy. (The biggest scandal was the sloppiness of the 15th's first printing). Many in book publishing still consult the 14th when the 15th is problematic. The chief virtue of the 15th is in addressing electronic cites.

An additional resource is the US Government Printing Office Style Manual (2000)ISBN 0-16-050083-4, along with specialized style manuals too numerous to mention, i.e. for medical and legal publications.

For techies, there's the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, Third Edition, which competes with Sun's Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry, Second Edition.



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