Beach Reads: The Chicago Manual of Style?!

Posted By on August 3, 2011


Chicago Manual of Style Proselytizing in Seattle ©Derek Johnson Photography

When The Chicago Manual of Style published its 16th edition, many copy editors worried because it was simultaneously published online, albeit by subscription only.

To many people, CMOS is a boring compendium of everything-you-didn’t-learn-in-English-class. To editors, it’s a bible. Well, perhaps that term isn’t exactly accurate. It doesn’t fit in the drawer of a bedside table. (Its 1,026 pages weigh in at 4.25 pounds.) It’s by turns lyrical and whiny, hilarious and dull, idiosyncratic and pompous—which, if you’re an editor, means you can’t put it down. In reality, it reads less like a bible and more like a book written by the author of Leviticus, if that person magically morphed into Mark Twain.

So why are editors upset? Are they anxious that the online advent of CMOS will shrink the need for copy editors, as ATMs did bank tellers? I concocted a test to determine whether offering CMOS’s wisdom to the masses would destroy the job security of editors.


Buying Tomatoes at the Market

I needed advice on a point of grammar. I couldn’t remember when to use “on” rather than “about.” I paged through CMOS’s index and easily found the sections on prepositions (5.189 to 5.191). But the answer I was looking for wasn’t there.

I did learn about the use and misuse of the preposition “only.” According to CMOS, it’s the word most often misplaced in sentences:


I bought only tomatoes at the market 

    [I bought nothing else] with

I bought tomatoes only at the market 

    [I bought nothing other than tomatoes or I didn’t buy tomatoes from any other place?].

A pleasant half-hour passed while I steeped myself in the definitions and issues of prepositions—but, alas, none of the material I read addressed my query.


Go online. Go online! Go online? Go online?!

On the CMOS site, I searched for every variation I could think of to get an answer (usage of prepositions, “on” vs. “about,” etc.). The result was always the same—the information contained in the book. I gave up and Googled.

I clicked through a long list of grammar Q&A sites, loaded with ads and big, bold become-a-member buttons. Their advice was paper-thin and uninterestingly written. Where was CMOS when I needed it most?


The Chicago Manual of Style Social Network

I tried tweeting: “How come, @chicagomanual, you don’t have a section on the use and misuse of prepositions? If I can’t turn to you, who can I turn to?” Dead silence. I posted my question in the CMOS Online forum. Dead silence.

Then a day later an editor on the forum asked for an example. I replied:

    Would you use “on” or “about” in the following sentence?

She gave a lecture on recycled plastics or about recycled plastics.

More editors chimed in. Here was their chance to show off their punctilious mastery of punctuation, their quibbles about quotation marks, and, yes, their pointed opinions about prepositions. Here’s one editor’s contribution to what had become a lengthy discussion:

    Regarding the specific example given, I think you’re all picking fly specks out of the pepper. Use “on” or “about”; it just doesn’t matter. The meaning is perfectly clear either way. You could also say the same thing half a dozen other ways:
    She gave a lecture covering recycled plastics. She gave a lecture regarding recycled plastics. She gave a lecture explaining recycled plastics.
    Now, if you really want to rev up this “on” versus “about” debate, try an illustration like this:
    “He gave a lecture on an aircraft carrier deck.” versus “He gave a lecture about an aircraft carrier deck.” Big difference there. Duck! Here comes the wing of an F-18 Superhornet!

To which another editor replied, “I once attended a lecture on the surface of Mars. ‘Twas rather chilly.

We need you, copy editors. Even 1,026 pages of advice—whether formatted for the web or in print—can’t answer all of our questions.


So which is better? Offline or online Chicago Manual of Style?

Both. The basic information is the same, online or off. And the CMOS Online forum allows all those eager copy editors to prove their worth. The print version, though, is beach reading for those of us who care about language. Listen to the book’s snarky advice about whether to end a sentence with a preposition, for instance:

    The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with preposition is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. As Winston Churchill famously said, “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” A sentence that carefully ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition. Compare, for example,

this is the case I told you about


this is the case about which I told you