“Of making many books there is no end,” we learn in Ecclesiastes, and in the Chicago Manual of Style, we learn that if you begin that quotation with a drop cap, you’ll probably omit the opening quotation mark.
That self-deprecating quotation moves around, but in edition after edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes remains. “Chicago” is like Dr. Who: It periodically assumes a new form yet retains its essence.
For those of us for whom the making of many books is a lifetime job, a new edition of “Chicago” — this is the 17th — represents a feast day, a celebration. The first edition came out in 1906 when the University of Chicago Press decided that its Manual of Style ought to make the leap from pamphlet to book. In its earliest editions, “Chicago” focused almost entirely on matters of style, punctuation and typography, though starting with its 15th edition, “Chicago” finally joined the fray and included sections on grammar and usage.
But don’t think of style in the E.B. White sense. “Chicago” does not weigh in on omitting needless words. It has, though, a great deal to say on the order and punctuation and capitalization of the words you use. Think, that is, about what publishers call house style. “Chicago” addresses whether to use a colon after “namely” (nope) or “as follows” (yep), about how to set off a phrase in apposition to a noun (commas, and there had better be two), about how to alphabetize names with “Saint” in an index.
Each publication or publishing house has a style regarding such matters, and its editors rely on one guide or another as its foundation. “Chicago” has become so widely adopted that it functions as the foundation for virtually all book publishers and a good many magazine publishers. Newspapers tend to adopt the Associated Press Stylebook. “Chicago” and AP supporters get along no better than any other rivals in these divided times; they don’t even agree on whether the feuding parties are copyeditors (“Chicago”) or copy editors (AP), to say nothing of the serial comma, which is something of a holy war (“Chicago” says yes; AP says no).
Copy editors, as the final bulwark between errant writing and defenseless readers, do God’s work here on earth. For instance, “Chicago” Section 8.91 tells us that God takes the capital G; per 8.140, earth takes lowercase “e” (though if you’re naming planets’ proper names, it’s Earth and Mars; sun and moon take lowercase). As I said, God’s work here on earth. Section 8.109 is entitled “Heaven, hell, and so on,” which tells you all you need to know.
Each new edition of “Chicago” includes some changes. The 17th recommends “email” without a hyphen (copy editors at a convention actually cheered when they learned this) and “internet” without a capital I. It even — mildly, haltingly — now approves of singular “they,” at least in informal writing or when a writer thinks they should avoid gendered pronouns.
But "Chicago" concerns itself foremost with more formal language. It is a university press style guide, and it has university press rectitude in its DNA. Its ownership is a mark of honor. In the movie "Roxanne," Steve Martin displays a copy on his desk as he writes those love letters to suggest the level of erudition we can expect from his character.
In an era when all rules seem to be forgotten, “Chicago” reemerges to remind us: There are ways to express yourself responsibly. Are you trying to express ideas so that others can understand them? Certain rules and principles help you do so; here they are.
“Chicago” is the rule of reason made flesh. It is belief in sensible authority and reasonable application thereof. After all, each house adapts rules to its own purposes; “Chicago” propounds rules with a soft authority, a gentle firmness. Even its publication as an actual book — of more than 1,000 pages — reminds us that everything is changing, but some truths remain steadfast, and they should be not merely online but at your fingertips.
As for what to do about people resolutely resisting those rules? For help on that, you will have to return to Ecclesiastes.
Scott Huler's seventh book of nonfiction, "A Delicious Country," about 18th-century explorer John Lawson, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press.
By The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff
University of Chicago Press. 1,144 pp. $70