Review: The Chicago Manual of Style
This is the first in what will be a series of roughly monthly reviews of books relevant to writing and editing.
The Chicago Manual of Style, born in 1906 as a house style guide for the University of Chicago Press, has made great strides over the past century, especially since it hit puberty with the publication of the twelfth edition in 1969. Now in its sixteenth iteration, it remains the supreme authority among American book publishers and a favored resource for many journal and magazine publishers as well.
The 1,000-plus-page manual, published only in hardcover but also available by subscription online, earns its reputation as a valuable resource for writers and editors, but it’s not necessarily a must-buy.
For one thing, Chicago, as it’s informally known in the publishing industry (its name is also abbreviated to CMS or CMOS), devotes many of its pages to book-production specifications and protocol. And because of its $65 MSRP (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price), it’s quite an investment, considering that casual users are likely to consult fewer than half of its pages. (Notice that you can buy it online for around $35 though. Here’s the link to the Amazon page selling it.)
But what a trove that middle half is, especially chapter 5, “Grammar and Usage,” introduced in the fifteenth edition and updated for this one. Written by Bryan A. Garner, author of the authoritative Garner’s Modern American Usage, its 100-plus pages include a primer on parts of speech and an alphabetical glossary of problem words and phrases (basically an abridged version of his encyclopedic work mentioned above).
The next half dozen or so chapters are also essential reading; they cover, respectively, punctuation, word treatment (including plurals and possessives, italics and quotation marks, and compounds and hyphenation), names and terms, numbers, and abbreviation. Also of some utility to writers and editors are chapters on foreign languages, mathematics, and quotations and dialogue.
The first part, on the other hand, though its sections on manuscript preparation and editing and proofreading, and its chapter on rights, permissions, and copyright, might inform and interest freelancers, is directed primarily at publication staff, and its more than 200 pages of guidelines on notes, bibliography, and references are applicable only to authors whose work is published in academic journals and scholarly books, or for editors who review their copy.
The final chapter, on indexing, the first appendix, on production and digital technology, and the second one, a glossary of book-publishing terms, will interest authors who want to know more about the process of creating print and online publications, but only professional indexers and editorial and production personnel are likely to return to these pages for repeat consultation.
I’m surprised that the University of Chicago Press hasn’t acted on what at least one employee there must have thought of — publication of Part Two: Style and Usage as a separate volume that is more accessible and practical for freelance wordsmiths. However, it would be somewhat redundant to The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, a paperback volume originally conceived as a companion to Chicago that repurposes that volume’s style and usage section for a more generalist audience — not just the titular type — and includes themed exercises at the end of each chapter.
Whatever you decide about whether to own the latest (2010) edition of Chicago — you might also buy a used copy of the fifteenth edition, or even the fourteenth, both somewhat out of date but still largely applicable — consult the namesake Web site. Much of the site’s resources are available only by subscription, but the Chicago Style Q&A is a free, highly informative (and often humorous and sometimes exquisitely snarky) source.
Take-away: If you’re committed to working in academic or trade publishing in the United States, this book is probably in your future. (But, then, it should already be in your workplace.) If you’re not planning on an in-house career with a book or journal publisher, other guides and manuals are more appropriate for your professional goals, though repeated perusal of a library copy would not be a waste of time.
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