Michael Erard | Reviews

It’s the 16th Ed. of the Chicago Manual of Style and I Feel Fine

The one book you'll find on the shelves of writers, editors and publishers, The Chicago Manual of Style, used to be a bible of the bibliocentric universe, with its slugs and leads, quads and ems, versos and rectos, compositors and copyreaders. I write "used to be" because all that's changed now. The CMoS is still a bible and to the degree that it's still a book, you'll still find it within handy reach on shelves. But the universe it describes no longer has printed objects like the book or the journal at the center of it.

I recently sat down with the brand new edition of the CMoS in its physical instantiation — an online version has been released simultaneously — which has changed substantially in content, design, usability and tone from the 15th edition, which I also had open on my lap in order to do some back-and forth-comparisons. I'd already seen the list of changes on the University of Chicago Press's website and a list of changes to specific rules (such as the new way to spell the possessive form of "Descartes," how to punctuate poems in foreign languages, or how to write the titles of blogs) here. But as I found while I read, there are also subtler changes to the CMoS.

If you were to send the 16th edition back to 2003, when the 15th edition came out, it would read like science fiction. Here's a taste. The words "electronic," "software," "technologies," "computing" and "website" all appear in the preface of the 16th, but the word "book" doesn't appear until the title of the first chapter, "Books and Journals," whose first section is titled "The parts of a book." (By contrast, the word "book" appears almost immediately in the 15th, on the sixth line of the preface.) Inside, there are 9 pages on electronic editing and only 3.5 for editing on paper. Words like "web," "electronic," "DOI," "metadata" and "digital" appear many more times in the 16th. And you simply couldn't predict from the 15th that you'd be talking about things that the 16th talks about. The glossary is a fascinating hybrid list, with words like "burst binding" and "castoff" next to "DRM" and "PNG." And there were no descriptions of any other intellectual property protections besides traditional copyright; now there are meaty paragraphs on the National Institute of Health's Public Access Policy, Creative Commons and other open source models. XML markup is presented as the most flexible, "most promising" means to deliver content in multiple formats, which is why there's an unapologetic appendix devoted to markup, mainly to XML.

On a visual note, the book has handsome, readable new fonts: FF Tisa, originally designed to be a magazine font, is the main text, while Whitney is used for inline examples of grammar. (The 15th, whose main text is Scala, not only puts inline examples in blue ink, it puts interlinear examples in Scala Sans, both of which seem awkward now, in light of what the 16th CMoS gives us.)

I didn't check all of the sections, but the content seems to have been reorganized to be more navigable and seem closer to the way people read nowadays. Take the section headings and subheadings of both CMoS editions. In the 15th's chapter on tables, the first four subheadings are "virtues of tables," "consistency," "column heads and rows" and "the variables." These are barely informative, unless you've read straight through from the top of the section. But the 16th has revised subheadings which means you can drop in on any subsection and know exactly where you are: "table preparation," "use of tables," "consistency among tables," "table structure and use." This may seem like a small change. But it's a substantially new recognition of how people interact with text, which is not in long immersions but in short bursts. As William Germano writes in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, somewhat mournfully, "Besides, the world and its technologies have replaced book reading with a quick dip into an electronic resource."

Proofreaders and copyeditors will be discussing how the 16th edition has "moved toward recommending a single rule for a given stylistic matter rather than presenting multiple options." But I'm interested in how it's included information about Unicode, an international character encoding standard that's relevant to all publishers, given the ubiquity of digital formats. Even though it was around (and very much relevant), Unicode doesn’t earn a single mention in the 15th edition; it's all over the 16th and could very well be its first appearance in a manual that's not for computer geeks. The history of Unicode is worth noting — about 20 years ago, software engineers from the major high-tech companies got together to try to develop a standard for communicating and displaying letters, numbers and symbols that are required by the world's writing systems. Someone who sends email in Chinese isn't sending Chinese characters through the ether. Instead, they're sending strings of 0s and 1s which have to be decoded by the recipient's computer and displayed correctly. To do this, the two computers have to share the same master list.

For a while, it looked as if each computer company and each country was going to develop its own master list, thereby dooming international communications to the chaos of Babel. The problem was whimsically captured in a poem written by Craig W. Cornelius for Unicode's 20th anniversary in 2008, sung to the tune of "This Land is Your Land":

"It's a Farsi email from the Polish punk band
To California from their tour in Iceland
If your app's just ASCII, don't even bother
That only works for A to Z…. We need a system that's universal,
To send Fulani to Sudan and Nepal,
To both Koreas, Malta and Thailand
Unicode's the right technology."

(There are other poems here). It was in the interest of technology companies to push a global standard; without one, you could only sell your product to the edge of the territory of your proprietary encoding. So Unicode promoters successfully impressed and cajoled major makers of operating systems, browsers and software to adopt Unicode, where it's come to play an increasingly crucial role in the technical infrastructure of the world. For most of its existence, Unicode has been invisible to most people, which makes its migration into the CMoS a significant turn, because now all editors and publishers have to know what Unicode is and how it works. Not only is there a surprising amount of electronics and digital knowledge that goes into the production of even physical books, there's a surprising amount of internationalization that lies behind publications in English for American markets. "The digital text can be a billion places at once," is the abstract way to describe the existence of the contemporary text, but all the practical implications of what that means for the world of work is contained in the CMoS.

Reading the 15th and 16th side by side, I don't get the sense that in 2003 the people at University of Chicago Press were going to go into this future without a fight. There's a kind of haughty disdain and sniffy tolerance in the preface of the 15th for things digital that doesn't appear in the 16th, as if there was a mass exodus in the intervening years. The new CMoS is refreshing that way.

That's not to say that the people who produce it aren't feeling nostalgic about the printed book's displacement from the center of their publishing universe. There are two references to book's "long history," as in this example: "Book-length works in particular — in their breadth and variety, not to mention their long history — provide an overview of the anatomy of a scholarly work." Then there's the fact that the word "book" appears more frequently in the 16th edition than in the 15th (753 times to 715). Which to me means that as the book wanes, it becomes even more prominent in its absence.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

Comments [2]

I think the new typeface, whatever it's called, is ugly as hell.
Mike Lindgren

I strikes me that having to name "book" at all is a nod to the fact that books are not the only product in publishing. Maybe "book" didn't appear so much in previous editions because (as far as CMOS was concerned) there few other forms of consequence in publishing.

Really enjoyed your analysis, by the way. I've been pouring over the 16th myself, breathing a sigh of relief that it's more in line with current publishing realities.
Adrienne Montgomerie

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