Manual Labors

Two Essential Guides to American English Get a Makeover—and Word Geeks Rejoice

Webster's reluctance to dismiss anything as incorrect might reassure the descriptivists, but it portends a linguistic Lake Wobegon, where everyone's grammar is above average. Fortunately, those in need of a prescriptivist fix can reach for their copy of Chicago.

Chicago first appeared in the 1890s as a one-page style sheet at the university press. Back then, the typesetters would try their best to decipher the faculty's handwritten manuscripts, which often included elaborate mathematical formulas or passages in Syriac or Ethiopic. The "brainery," as the proofreaders were known, would then fix errors and edit for consistency. As the press grew, so did its style guide, and by 1906, it was published as a 201-page book, titled Manual of Style, Being a Compilation of the Typographical Rules in Force at the University of Chicago Press, to Which Are Appended Specimens of Types in Use. The price was 50 cents. While some of the stylistic quirks in that first edition might have seemed stodgy even then (e.g., spelling the Bard's name "Shakspere"), and the typesetting instructions are now all but obsolete, braineries everywhere could still benefit from its manual's advice: "Read everything as though you yourself were the author, and your reputation and fortune depended upon its accuracy." The title shrank in subsequent editions, but not the book: Its new incarnation is nearly five times longer and 100 times more expensive.

Some of the sprawl is of interest only to index fetishists. But one new chapter should be required reading: a guide to grammar and usage by Bryan A. Garner, author of 1998's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.

"We added the new chapter strictly because users wanted it," Chicago's Erin Hogan tells the Voice. "[They] indicated that such a chapter would make the Manual 'one-stop shopping' for editors, who would no longer need to consult separate grammar and usage guides. Our own staff editors confirmed that it would be a good idea. I hesitate to mention it, but our staff editors have on occasion been known to consult what they call the 'warhorse,' Words Into Type [1974], for grammar and usage chapters. And now they won't have to."

User feedback also prompted Chicago editors to drop some of their more irksome eccentricities: Euro-quirky dates (13 August 2003) have been supplanted with the style most Americans, and the Voice, use (August 13, 2003). "The Manual has always been a flexible document, meant to reflect as well as prescribe issues of style," says Hogan, "and while we of course wouldn't decide to make it universal that everyone should capitalize Donutsjust because people wanted us to, we do take the sentiments of users and other editors very seriously." And so, back by popular demand: lowercased generic terms in proper nouns when used as plurals (e.g., "Park and Lexington avenues"), a reversal from CMS14's cap-everything diktat. That rule was unpopular even among Chicago staffers, says chief manuscript editor Anita Samen. (The Voice copy desk wasn't too crazy about it either.)

For each Chicago quirk, there's another in Webster's, so it seems counterintuitive to think of the volumes as complementary. Yet they are: Copy editors wouldn't dream of using one without the other. Chicago, in fact, recommends Webster's Collegiate as its dictionary of choice, to which Garner appends the following caveat: "One must use care and judgment in consulting any dictionary. . . . Lexicographers generally disclaim any intent to guide writers and editors on the thorny points of English usage. . . . Even so, good usage should make reasonable demands—not set outlandishly high standards." Sage advice to carry us through until the next editions come out.


Jorge Morales is theVoice's deputy copy chief.


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"Booty Call: Do’s and Don’ts, Past and Present" by Jorge Morales

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