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Rated: E · Review · Educational · #2274379
A review of the CMS
I've always been a sucker for large, thick, scholarly works, especially if they cover some subject I'm interested in- not that this M.O. has always met with the best of results. Take Black's Law Dictionary, for example. Back in the day, when I was studying to become a legal assistant, I was grabbing any volume that looked like it would help decipher legalese- and when I saw Black's, clocking in at 3-4" in girth, I thought I'd found THE AUTHORITY on all words legal- but soon discovered that not only was it as dull as a rubber knife, it was not authoritative in any way, more than one law student or lawyer calling at a fancy doorstop. After years of getting burned, having purchased similar weighty tomes on a variety of subjects, I wised up and became more selective.

But with the purchase of the CMS, have I returned to my old ways? After all, to this day I don't recall why I bought it. It wasn't for the extensive citation examples- that was what I bought the Little Brown Handbook for. And though the CMS tipped the scales at 861 pages, I wasn't all that familiar with its contents. Maybe it was the alluring bolded words on its bright orange cover: "The essential guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers." If that wasn't enough, there was the back cover's declaration: "The indispensable reference for all who work with words."
"Whoa," I thought. "Gotta get this, for sure!" And at $55 I couldn't afford not to.

So, what's inside this big book anyway?

Starting with the Preface, I learn that the CMS is aimed at two groups: those who work with "non-book or non-print documents," and "writers and editors of scholarly books and journals" (Page xi). This section notes the effect Internet usage has had on the CMS, mentioning the many changes and additions incorporated into the book as a result- the most notable being an entire chapter on grammar by Bryan Garner, of "Garner's Modern American Usage" (a famous book that I still do not own, mainly because I would probably enjoy holding it more than perusing its contents).

Skipping past several long paragraphs to the last, I read that the first version of the CMS was created in the 1890's, consisting of one page of typography fundamentals drawn up by a University of Chicago Press proofreader. The first actual book edition was not published until 1906.

The "Acknowledgements" on Page xvi states that 91 professional types helped put out this 15th edition. Also, every member of the Advisory Board read the penultimate draft- all 861 pages- hopefully allowed to skip the remaining 195 pages of bibliography and index.

Chapter One expends 42 pages explaining the different parts of a published work, whether it be in paper form or on-line. Everything from front matter to back matter (and all that's in between) is discussed, after which journals are discussed.

Chapter Two covers an author's responsibilities, as well as those of the manuscript editor. Looking over the list of duties, I'm surprised at the multitude of things an author has to provide for their publisher. Same goes for the manuscript editor.

Chapter Three discusses proofs- what to look for, how to work proofs, blue lines, cover proofs, gathered and folded sheets, as well as how to check works for electronic publication.

Chapter Four is a 39-page section on rights and permissions, comprised of copyright law, the publishing agreement, and the responsibilities of publishers and authors.

Chapter Five contains 47 and 42-page sections on grammar and usage, respectively. For those hoping they've found in the CMS the complete guide to grammar, the Introduction on Page 147 offers an interesting, yet troubling, observation: "There are many schools of grammatical thought- and differing vocabularies for describing grammar. Grammatical theories are in flux, and the more we learn, the less we seem to know." Well, that's just peachy.
Author Robert W. Burchfield then piles on with more grammarial facts of life: "An entirely adequate description of English grammar is still a distant target and at present a seemingly unreachable one, the complications being what they are" ("Unlocking the English Language." New York: Hill and Wang. 1991).
"In fact," the paragraph says, waving a white flag, "The more detailed the grammar (it can run to many large volumes), the less likely it is to be of use to most writers and speakers" (Ibid). Alternately put in my place, and comforted by the fact that even grammar teachers don't have all the answers, I move on. Looks like I'll always be at sea, or lost somewhere in the vast and foggy harbor of the English Language.

The eight parts of speech follow (the exact number actually in dispute): nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections.
Next comes one of the more useful parts of the book (at least for me): the "Glossary of Troublesome Expressions." Its front matter reminds us that "One must use care and judgment in consulting any dictionary. The mere presence of a word in the dictionary's pages does not mean that the word is in all respects fit for print."
This section includes proper use for such problem children as "affect" and "effect," all "right" and "alright," "farther" and "further," among many others, the chapter ending with a list of prepositional idioms, another thorn in the writer's side.


Punctuation is the subject of Chapter Six. It's interesting how the easy-going period, as well as the semi-colon, colon, question mark, exclamation mark, parenthesis, brackets, and slash take a mere page each to explain, hyphens and dashes, five, but the wily comma the winner at a whopping 11. No wonder I have so much trouble with it.

Chapter Seven touches briefly on spelling and plurals before launching into the strange world of possessives. Readers know they are entering troubled waters when:

1) Mention is now made of "The General Rule," which remains faithful to that of Strunk and White's: "Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's;'"
2) Later in the paragraph the book warns that "feelings on these matters run high;"
3) Several exceptions and alternatives to "The General Rule" are to be found on the next two pages.

Is there a lawyer in the house?

Contractions, interjections and word division guidelines are next, along with a reminder that the indefinite article "a" (not "an") is used before words starting with a pronounced letter "H," while words like "heir" and "hour" start with "an." Of course, all bets are off if an abbreviation, numeral or symbol are involved: "An NBC anchor" vs. "A CBS representative." Go figure...
This seems to be one of those cases where one goes by feel, or what sounds right- especially since the rule is so hard to understand.
After this there's a blurb about ligatures, then italics, capitals and quotation marks, with compounds and hyphenation rounding out the section.

Chapter Eight covers names and terms. Interesting tidbit in the introduction: the editors admit that "Chicago generally prefers a "down style:"" the parsimonious use of capitals. On the CMS goes, describing the rules for personal names, titles and offices, epithets, the ethnic and socioeconomic, as well as names of place, religion, organization, history, culture, calendar, time, military, transportation, science, trademark, literary work, notices and mottoes. Whew!

Numbers in all their manifestations are the focus of Chapter Nine. Herein lie the answers to questions such as when to spell out numbers or fractions, percentages and monetary units, dates, time of day, and addresses. The last two pages discuss the proper use of roman numerals.

Chapter Ten returns to the deeper waters of foreign language. Apparently, certain typographic problems ensue when dealing with languages other than English. Problems with that Latin alphabet differ from those that are transliterated (Romanized), as well as classical Greek and Old English.
Rules on capitalization and special characters are then given for African languages, as well as Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.
Romanized languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew and Russian are next, followed by a stern warning about attempting to proofread when unfamiliar with the language. "Grave errors can occur" (Ibid, 422).

Though the explanations about Arabic seem complicated, nothing compares to Chinese. After a paragraph explaining how "pinyin romanization" has replaced the older "Wade-Giles" system, there follows a two-page chart of Chinese words converted from one system to the other. Reading on, it appears that Russian is almost as difficult.

Then we go from the obscure to the archaic: classical Greek. Apparently, "every initial vowel or diphthong or rho must be marked with a breathing; either rough ('), or smooth (')." Breathing? Rhos? Rough and smooth? Yes- it is all Greek to me...

Chapter Eleven explains how to handle quotations and dialogue, as well as when and when not to quote someone. While source citations will help keep one out of plagiarism trouble, sometimes no citation is needed- and it's good to know the difference.

Five pages are then dedicated to the tricky ellipsis. There is even an in-depth explanation of the "Three-Dot Method," the "Three or Four-Dot Method," and the "Rigorous Method" (not to be confused with the "Rhythm Method," which involves another sort of trouble with little dots, altogether). Yes, that was a cheap shot- but then again, can you fault me for trying to enliven the subject matter?

Chapter Twelve covers illustrations and captions. Finally, some pictures...

Then it's on to Chapter Thirteen, which discusses tables of all kinds. And while I'm sure that it is all valuable information, I suddenly couldn't be more bored. After all, isn't that what MS Excel is for?

Chapter Fourteen covers my nemesis in life: mathematics. While no big fan of all things numbered- due to my inability to ever get much further than Intermediate Algebra, despite repeated attempts over a 30-year period- I find this section interesting. The introduction states that "with the advent of sophisticated computer typesetting software...many mathematical expressions and arrangements of expressions...are now relatively easy to achieve" (Ibid, 524). Typesetting challenges aside, proofreading a math book has got to be right up there with indexing, as one of the true drudge jobs of this or any other century.
The farther I delve into this chapter, the more I realize how much like a foreign language math can be. A case in point is the chart on Page 528, which illustrates how many signs and symbols there are for each of the following:

Operations: 18 Relations: 32 Operators: 4 Logic: 14 Radial Units: 3 Constants: 2 Geometry: 6 Miscellaneous: 16

The section on punctuation gives me pause with the statement that "mathematical expressions are sentences or parts of sentences, and they should be punctuated accordingly" (Ibid, 533).

After the section on sub and super-script, the terrain gets increasingly strange and intimidating with the ritualistic-sounding "Summation of Integrals:" those large Greek E's (sigmas), and the Pi symbol that looks like a Roman arch consisting of two columns, a flat stone lying across their tops. They are summation and product signs, respectively, and are soon joined by the "Sign of the Integral"- sounding like the title of the latest techno-thriller- a tall, squished, skinny letter "S," the f to its immediate right indicative of a function. By now, though, I'm in way over my head, and after reading about differentials, lower and upper limits of integration, and triple integrals (of all things!), I'm breaking out in a cold sweat, and looking for the nearest exit.

But those alluring and deceptively simple radicals are next, and though I know little about the square roots they denote, I've always liked gazing at that dramatic looking checkmark-with-the-line-attached-to-its-top-and-pointing-to-the-right. It looks cool, even if square root problems give me the willies- especially when they get too complex or involve negative numbers. After the rest are provided by fractions, those strange creatures called "determinants" and "matrices" appear, neither of which I understand. Same goes for their little friends, scalars, vectors and tensors. The chapter ends, mercifully, with a table on Pages 555-56 called "Potentially Ambiguous Mathematical Symbols," of which the book laughingly states there are 71. Though I know from personal experience that there are a lot more than that, I leave the area with what shreds of dignity I still possess.

Chapter 15 covers abbreviations for everything from agencies and saints to geography, time designations, biblical sources, technology and business.

Chapters 16 and 17 are the largest two in the CMS, 16 discussing two methodologies for source citation: notes and bibliography, and the author-date system, while 17 covers style issues related to components of citation systems.

And what book wouldn't be complete without a section on indexing? Chapter 18 does just that, though for my money, one would be better off hiring a professional indexer.

The CMS finishes up with a couple appendices. The first describes publication design and production, including a lot of information about text design, typesetting, prepress, paper, printing and binding.

Following this is an 18-page section of key terms, and several pages of sample book pages showing proper format and placement. The second appendix, though brief, contain work flow diagrams showing the publishing process for books and journals, as well as related book chapters.

In summary:
Do I think the "Chicago Manual of Style" is the only book reference you'll need?
No, because no such book exists.

Do I think it is worth owning?
Yes, because it provides a wealth of information found nowhere else. Furthermore, it provides a good platform- a credible, organized and reliable starting point- from which to go when seeking out information particular to the craft of writing. It represents one century of research and experience, all expended in the worthy effort of safeguarding and improving the English language.
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