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My Kind of Manual

For the first time in a decade, there's a totally revised, brand-new Chicago.

By Chris Gage - August 15, 2003

Wee tykes ask their mothers "Why?" and mothers invariably reply in an exasperated tone, "Because I said so." Authors ask the same question of their copy editors, and the copy editors respond, "Because Chicago says so." The Chicago Manual of Style is the last-word bad cop to the peaceful-relationship copy editor's good cop. Supplemented by only a handful of guides, the big orange book is the final word regarding queries of all stripes and weights, demolishing questions with a wrecking ball's veracity.

It was first conceived in 1906 by standards-obsessed copy editors and proofreaders in the manufacturing department of the University of Chicago Press. Originally called A Manual of Style (click here for that first version in .pdf form), only with the thirteenth edition in 1982 did the name change to The Chicago Manual of Style, in deference to how its users referred to it. It's been 10 years since the fourteenth edition, and, for this go-round, Chicago has been rebuilt, refined, and refitted from the bottom up to withstand the tourbillion changes of the publishing landscape.

Anita Samen, managing editor of University of Chicago Press since 1993, held editorial positions at Lyceum, Macmillan, Scribner's, St. Martin's Press, Scholastic ("way back before the Earth's crust cooled"), and worked as a freelance editor. Now, as the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style is released, Samen spoke with about her role in the manual's rebirth, the significant alterations between editions, and of how a sexy 900-number could provide the Press a little supplemental income.

How big a project is assembling a new edition of Chicago, and how is the process of deciding what needs to be updated?
It's a huge project to update the manual, and many people are involved. The director of our trade reference program is the acquiring editor, or fills the role of the acquiring editor, and my predecessor was the one who collected the big folder of letters and comments and sat at her desk looking at cut-and-pasted versions of the old manual, and went over every line to figure out what needed updating and what could stay as is. She also, starting in 1998, formed some informal listservs, and she would throw out questions about topics that had been raised. We also formed an internal task force at the Press that had members of literarily every department—IT, books, marketing, design, production—except perhaps for subscription and fulfillment. The trade reference director formed an advisory board, which is first time the manual has ever had an outside board of advisors.

What role did you play in this new edition?
I was part of a team of a half-dozen people that concentrated on revising the two chapters on documentation. We were particularly eager to include information on electronic citations. We did a lot of research using other people's guidelines and found that they didn't really work for electronic publishing or publishing on websites.

I'm very proud of those two chapters. There is nothing anyone is likely to cite that's not covered. We consulted with lots of people, including our colleagues in journals. Of the eight of us, four were from journals—our scientific and social-science journals—and we racked our brains to think of the kinds of things that people would want to cite. Also, our authors are incredibly comprehensive about the kinds of things they cite. So, among the eight of us and our authors, we were able to come up with a wide variety of instructions, like when you need an access dates, how to cite access dates, what do when a site has been taken down, et cetera.

How is Chicago different from other reference books like, say, Words Into Type?
Words Into Type was a wonderful book in its time, but it hasn't been revised since 1974. Chicago is much more comprehensive even than the MLA, and we really can be used by anyone who works with words and is "publishing" his or her work in any medium—whether it's putting it on a website, or writing corporate communications, newsletters, electronic journals, or books.

At what point does it become clear that an update is necessary?
We start thinking about the new one as soon as the previous one comes out. The fourteenth came out in 1993 and we began seriously in 1998 on this new edition, but we were collecting information all along and thinking about what we would need to change. It became abundantly clear when we looked at the way people deal with words now. In 1993, we all had computers and the Press was getting some of our manuscripts on disk, but now all our manuscripts are edited on screen.

Tell me about the most notable changes between the fourteenth and fifteenth editions.
The grammar and usage section is new. We did a lot of market research indicating that that was something that would be welcomed, so that the manual could be one-stop shopping. As luck would have it, we had a Press author who was an expert in the field and agreed to write the chapters for us. We were extremely fortunate that he was willing and able to do that.

As far as dates go, we are now preferring month, day, year to day, month year—although the latter is an acceptable alternative, because frankly the rest of the world likes month, day, year, and we don't want to have editors trying to conform to Chicago to jump through all kinds of hoops, making all kinds of changes to things that are intelligible the way they are.

We no longer prefer small caps for a.m. and p.m and for B.C., A.D., and BCE. We're now allowing lowercase for a.m. and p.m., and full caps for B.C., A.D., and B.C.E. Some of these changes come out of working so much on disks. When you're working with a pencil manuscript and you want small caps you do the two lines. On screen, however, there are a few more hoops you need to jump through and it doesn’t aid comprehension.

Ordinal numbers, we're now going with 2nd and 3rd instead of 2d and 3d, except in legal citations. Again, it never caught on among authors, and it just seems unnecessary to require people to do it that way when it doesn't aid comprehension.

Letters as shapes—e.g., L-shaped room and U-turn—are no longer required to be set in sans-serif type. Onscreen editing has caused that change. If you like the way it looks, and I do like the way it looks, it's not wrong to make them serif.

The thing that caused everyone to gasp was the renumbering of the chapters from chapter 4 on when we added the chapter 5 on grammar. We knew that would cause a stir.

Why is that? Because people are so accustomed to looking in specific places for certain things?
Yes, I think it is. But we felt is was absolutely necessary. Sometimes you know something is wrong and you know how to fix it but you can't necessarily, when questioned by an author, explain exactly why one way is wrong in grammar terms. So that grammar chapter is handy because we came up with a succinct and cogent and grammatically correct way of explaining it.

Oh, also, there was a table in the old chapter 6 that dealt with hyphenation and that's now a list.

I'll miss that table. I used it a lot.
I have to confess that I loved that table, but the consensus was that the list was clearer and easier. It's a good list, it just looks so different and is indeed so different.

The whole look of the book is different. There's some color, a new type face (Scala and Scala Sans), a new index.
We wanted to make it look like a book that was published in 2003 but was still readable. And I think our designer was very successful. I love having a second color. The other change that is so nice is that after every number for the number paragraphs is a run-in subheading that tells what's in that particular section. I can flip it open at random and know what I am looking at immediately.

Of course, people will still decorate them with Post-Its flying out of the top and dog-eared corners.
I have a twelfth edition that was in our library that the owner went so far as to tab her book with very formal index cards she meticulously placed and taped into place. There were so many differences of opinion on what we should do about adding markers. For a while I was thinking of the L.L. Bean catalog, which comes with translucent post-its you can put on pages, and we thought we could do them in manual orange. Then that turned out to be not really feasible, and we figured people have their own systems and it was best to let them devise their own.

The fourteenth edition says, "The use of the comma is mainly a matter of good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view." Then it goes on to explain the use of the comma for 15 pages.
Authors have very fixed ideas about commas, and some people don't really care for the serial comma at all, but we're really not flexible about it. Our example, which is probably apocryphal, is a book dedication: "To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa." It does help explain to people why you want the series comma in there.

Do you or any of the others at the Press receive fan mail from enthusiastic manual users or grammar enthusiasts?
The person who wrote the answers for the FAQ on the previous Chicago website, whose name is a deep dark secret, had someone who was a "frequent-flier" who asked interesting questions. And, through our marketing department, this author began sending fan letters and inscribed copies of his books to the FAQ writer.

Earlier, when we took phone calls, people could just phone in and the reception desk rotated it among the managing editors, and some of us gave out our direct phone numbers to people who phoned in a lot. We had to stop because we were getting so many calls we couldn't really get our work done. People would want to fax us things, have us edit them, and then fax them back.

Are those, or did they used to be before you stopped, examples of how you knew what information needed to be updated or added?
What it does, and what it did for us, is remind us of what a broad readership we have, It's not just scholarly publishing or nonfiction publishing. We have people out in the real world, in the business world, and at advertising agencies. The phone-in questions were incredibly esoteric. I remember a woman's daughter was getting married, and she was doing the program and wanted to know how to style the musical pieces that would be played. I thought it was wonderful that she knew there was a right way and a wrong way, but it was incredibly time consuming. I took a call after we had stopped answering phone-ins. It had somehow gotten through to me and it was a woman in the medical field who was working on a grant proposal. I told her I am sorry we don't take calls anymore, but I'll answer it this time. And she said, "So you mean, my grant is just supposed to be done wrong?" I told her those weren't the only two options.

Chris Gage is a production editor for John Wiley & Sons, and he's probably troubled that doesn't follow a pure Chicago style. You can buy the new Chicago Manual of Style at

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