In an industry facing rumors of its obsolescence, one century-old print publication is clinging to some standards while stepping forward into a digital future. The 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style was published last month, seven years after its last iteration. And though the 15th also had an online version, this edition is the first to be published simultaneously online and in print.
A quick history: In 1891, the staff at University of Chicago Press's composing room (where "compositors" deciphered handwritten manuscripts from professors, then gave them to proofreaders to correct and edit for style) created a style sheet—a documentation of standards and editorial decisions about things like spelling and the use of hyphens and italics. It soon became a pamphlet and then a book. The first edition of the Manual of Style: Being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago Press, to which are appended specimens of type in use was published in 1906. By the 14th edition, the original 200 pages had expanded to 936—this latest edition exceeds 1,000.
While Chicago is indispensable for anyone working with words, the book can be a beast. (As a copy editor at The Stranger, I reference it regularly.) It's big, it's rife with intimidating words like predicate nominative, and until you wear a groove into the sections you'll flip to over and over again, it can take some digging to find a simple answer. So the web version is a dream. Not only is the content easily searchable and hyperlinked, you can also bookmark sections, take notes, and create your own style sheets with links back to various rules.
Chicago provides simple solutions to recurring queries. The last edition was too wishy-washy for some, providing multiple options and leaving room for flexibility—commenters writing to Chicago's popular online Q&A complained that they just wanted to be topped, told what do in a definitive way from an authority in the field. So the 16th edition simplified some things.
But first, let's review a couple neglected basics. There's spelling—that's easy: Use a fucking dictionary (if there are multiple spellings for a word, go with the first one). Chicago recommends Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (www.m-w.com). Then there's grammar. Grammar is a code, a naturally occurring pattern beneath our words (spoken, signed, texted). There really isn't such a thing as poor grammar, just a variety of contexts. And for the most part, our brains can decipher proper constructions—and code-switch between contexts—without instruction. But sometimes we get stuck. Is it Give the award to whoever runs the fastest or Give the award to whomever runs the fastest? (Pro tip: If you like math, break the sentence down into clauses and imagine that there are parentheses around the clauses—calculate the grammar within the parentheses first, then move outward. [Give the award to (whoever runs the fastest.)])
And then there's style. The style of a text is hidden in its letters, its commas, its hyphens. The President said the war is over or The president said the war is over? The Stranger Genius Awards are in visual art, theater, literature, film and music or The Stranger Genius Awards are in visual art, theater, literature, film, and music? (Chicago gives a fuck about an Oxford comma.) Post-mortem or postmortem?
There is no correct answer here—it depends on which style you are using. And there's an alphabet soup of styles to choose from: AP, APA, MLA, Turabian, and, of course, Chicago are among the most common. Most newspapers use AP (The Associated Press Stylebook, which is updated annually); most fields outside of newspaper journalism use Chicago. Magazines tend to use some combination of Chicago and AP. (Because The Stranger is a weekly and publishes long-form articles—and because we like it better—our house style is based on Chicago.)
For some of us, the publication of this edition is thrilling, with its new simpler organization (three sections now: "The Publishing Process," "Style and Usage," and "Documentation"), an expanded section on bias-free language (including a dis of age-old attempts at creating gender-neutral singular pronouns), a simply designed (and handy!) hyphenation table, and a brand-new index entry for blogs (directing readers to a questionable preference for casting blog names in italics). For others... well, Carol Fisher Saller—author of The Subversive Copy Editor (as well as a great blog of the same name) and one of the primary editors of the 16th edition—put it best to the Chicago Tribune: "There are two kinds of people in the world: There are those who could be given this book and not be able to put it down, and there are people who would, you know, rather slit their wrists than read it."
If you're still reading, you're the former. Many of the changes hone previous overly complicated or cumbersome advice to a more simple, consistent style, and others are slowly catching up with modern spellings (like web instead of Web; though this edition still stubbornly retains the capping of Internet and the hyphen in e-mail). Other updates include the permission of multiple punctuation marks in certain contexts (Against Me!, Man or Astro-man?, and the Shins would be a crazy lineup), a revoking of the special treatment of possessive forms of names that end in an unpronounced s (René Descartes's mind/body dualism was misguided), the hyphenation (when they precede a noun) of compound adjectives formed with color words (emerald-green landscape, snow-white clouds), and the "geographic and cultural entity" of Northern California finally getting some respect, with Chicago now preferring to capitalize it (previously, only Southern California merited capitalization). There's also an entirely new section on "Considerations for Web-Based Publications," emphasizing things that most professional web designers have already systematized, namely the importance of a "clear and consistent navigational hierarchy." One of the most helpful sections has unfortunately lost its Lemony Snicket–y name (formerly the "Glossary of Troublesome Expressions")—now it's the "Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases."
Even with new, simplified rules, there's still plenty of wiggle room. As the editors have reminded us since the first edition: "Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity." Sometimes, Chicago outright tells writers to make shit up: "For [interjections] not found in the dictionary—or where a different emphasis is required—plausible spellings should be sought in literature or invented" (bee-yotch!). Over the years of editing linguistically, um, creative writers, The Stranger has compiled an extensive list of our own—words that haven't made their way into Webster's (or those that have but whose treatment we dislike): blowjob, babydaddy, buttfucking, come shot, douchebag, genderqueer, K-hole, and three-way, for example. And sometimes, to allow room for a writer's unique voice (ahem, Lindy West and Wm.™ Steven Humphrey), a copy department can choose to disregard certain guidelines, like, say, section 7.48 ("Capitalizing an entire word or phrase for emphasis is rarely appropriate").
For over one hundred years, The Chicago Manual of Style has been setting and defending stylistic standards. In a world where we often communicate with just our thumbs and publish our thoughts from 30,000 feet in the air, we need something to ground us, to solve the little problems, to give us answers we never knew we needed, and to make us beam (or scream) with solutions to the dilemma of the omitted antecedent of a relative pronoun.This story has been updated since its original publication