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The 17th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style Reaffirms its Relevance



No one should underestimate the powers of discernment belonging to Russel David Harper, the more-than-capable “principal reviser” of the new 17th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. Writing in his preface, he says, after alluding to major shifts happening in the modern book and journal and online publishing world, “These and other discussions also recognize the needs of self-published authors and how they can benefit from close attention to procedures once followed mainly by traditional publishers.”

“Once followed ... mainly ...” What?

I must admit, Harper’s subtle allusion to a new relativism that had snuck into the book publishing world’s grammar and style bible at first left me in dismay. Was the keeper of the faith caving to the specter of apostasy? Then I reminded myself of something Ruth Goring, one of the editors of CMOS, once said to me in our interview in Chicago: “We (the CMOS staff and the book itself) are prescriptive, and our prescriptions come from what is elegant and useful.” OK, that calmed me down. Change isn’t anathema to the faith; it is a core doctrine.

With that realization, and knowing that reverent stalwarts like Harper and Goring were ordained to anoint the changes, I could then embrace all 1,162 sacred pages of the most comprehensive and detailed style manual that is available in the English language.

But there do seem to be generational concerns fomenting about a prescriptive manual like CMOS. Many of my longtime publishing colleagues think of Chicago as the arbiter of all things pertinent to writing, editing, and publishing. I certainly belong to this camp. But when I chat with younger people in the publishing world, I do not elicit quite the same response. For them, growing up in a postmodern world, the very idea of “authority” is suspect. It’s a reaction alien to my sensibilities.

In fact, even now in my 70s, I turn to CMOS immediately when I have a style question or need to remind myself how to do a citation, because I still see it as the most authoritative book in my industry. For younger editors, the relevance and value of the internet makes the venerable style bible an atavistic relic. At first, I wasn’t even sure how to respond to this shift. Like my younger friends, I “Google” many topics, but it is not the first source of information for me like it is for them.

Fortunately, with the new edition of CMOS, Harper, Goring, and their team have done something to stop the charge of obsolescence in its tracks. They have discussed everything, and I mean everything, that is pertinent for style, grammar, and publishing questions.

I don’t want CMOS to be a source of last resort, but, for many, it just that, and I can’t change this mistake. For the first time in my 41-year career, through four editions and four decades of using Chicago, I had the fantasy of wanting to be a University of Chicago publicity agent making sure every single editor and writer knew about this remarkable book. Pick it up and you will see what an amazing book it really is. My hat goes off to the staff of the University of Chicago Press for producing the best edition of this guide so far in its 112-year history. The faithful should never have doubted.


Roy M. Carlisle is Acquisitions Director at the Independent Institute and a member of the Board of Directors for the Independent Book Publishers Association.






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