Chicago Style, XV 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
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 shoutto those of us
sitting in the classroomwhat 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
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 editcetera.com.
"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 thenit'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.