Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tonight: More Than a Century of Style

Posted By on 11.08.11 at 02:00 PM

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The very first edition of The Chicago Manual of Style appeared in 1906 under the title 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. (You can download a PDF of the full first edition here.) Regarding those specimens, the UCP is still cranking ’em out—last year the press released the 16th edition of the manual, which now runs to about a thousand pages and has been revised to reflect editorial standards evolving in the electronic era. It counseled, for instance, to lowercase and close the word previously styled as “Web site,” to the relief of journalists everywhere who don’t want to look hopelessly stodgy.

Tonight the University of Chicago and WBEZ assemble a brain trust of total nerds for More Than a Century of Style, a talk on “the Manual’s evolving role in publishing, punctuated by audience polling on matters of usage and style.” It is basically, for people like me—described aptly by one CMOS fan as "those of us whose control issues bleed into the written word"—the most exciting event of the season. Tickets aren’t available online any longer but can be purchased at the door; see our Agenda listing for price and address info. The event will also be streamed live on the university's Facebook page. More information after the jump.

Eight Forty-Eight’s Alison Cuddy moderates, with panelists including Ben Zimmer, former author of the New York Times’s On Language column; U of C Press managing editor of books Anita Samen; U of C linguistics professor Jason Riggle; and Carol Fisher Saller, a Chicago manuscript editor who writes the online feature Chicago Manual of Style Q&A. Saller also authored The Subversive Copy Editor, a great little volume based on her blog of the same name. (She's been mentioned in the Reader once or twice, most recently when managing editor Jerome Ludwig said that meeting her at a book signing was "like meeting a rock star.") A while ago on her blog Saller interviewed the chief reviser for the 16th edition, Russell David Harper. A snippet:

CAROL: So, Russell, tell me: when you were asked to revise CMOS for the sixteenth edition, did you have any fears or reservations, and if so, what were they, and did you get over them?
RUSSELL: Well yes. My first fear was for my family. I knew the Manual well, and I knew what a revision would mean. (They survived.) Next, I worried for my safety. My third-floor office at the time—in the attic of a hundred-year-old house in Ithaca, New York—trembled and swayed whenever a city bus or fire truck passed by (about every twenty minutes). So I resolved to make daily backups of every stage of the manuscript to a variety of off-site servers, leaving passwords and instructions with a close and highly literate family member across the Atlantic.

The release of the 16th also occasioned a reminiscence by novelist Ed Park, once a lowly copy editor, about the “evolving narratives” sprinkled throughout the CMOS volume he worked with, the 14th.

At 933 pages, the fourteenth was comparable in size to the heralded omnium-gatherums of its era (1996's Infinite Jest, 1997's Mason & Dixon and Underworld). For sheer head-scratching postmodern tricksterism, though, Messrs. Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo had nothing on the collaborative deadpan master jam that was the fourteenth. Infinite Jest's reams of endnotes were distinctive but hardly as radical as Chicago's editorial comments for a text that was essentially invisible. "Millicent Cliff was Norton Westermont's first cousin, although to the very last she denied it," 15.47 tells us—but who was Norton Westermont? In this sense, much of Chicago reads like Pale Fire without the poem. On the very next page, 15.51's directions on how to style acknowledgments delivers both a name right out of Pynchonland and a DeLillo-esque consortium: "The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Oscar J. Blunk of the National Cyanide Laboratory in the preparation of this chapter."

Park says that though he’s no longer a copy editor, he looked through the 16th edition for the characters that recurred in the examples offered by the 14th: “Farnsworth,” “the excitable Henrietta,” “that hussy Babs,” “ever-eager Bill.” I’ve only got the 15th at my desk, but I bumped into Henrietta recently in a fairly alarming few sentences in the section on colons (6.63). The word following a colon usually isn’t capitalized, the manual's editors tell us, unless the colon introduces two or more sentences. They offer the following fateful example:

Henrietta was faced with a hideous choice: Should she reveal what was in the letter and ruin her reputation? Or should she remain silent and compromise the safety of her family?

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