by Marta Steele




hat of The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) out since August 15 in its fifteenth edition, ninety-seventh anniversary of the release of the first edition in 1906? I learned most of what I know about editing from this bible of reference works for authors, editors, publishing professionals, and printers,[1] which has now expanded its target population to all who work with words. One million copies have been sold since 1906. The fourteenth edition accounts for half of these sales. It was, published in 1993 to address the exigencies of generations who had experienced an abrupt and radical change in their workplace “infrastructure,” that is, the advent of the computer age. The fifteenth edition responds to the rapid advances made since then, including the dawn of cyberspace and the Internet. I have had conversations with three Chicago employees and I have read the superb press packet that includes a facsimile of the first edition, but, as I said, I learned most of what I know about my profession from CMS. For this reason, what follows is a tribute to this paragon of reference books and the many distinguished people who have labored to perfect and update it.


What concerned me as an editor was the process of writing, editing, and producing what has evolved from essentially a style sheet for publishing professionals and printers into a 964-page magisterial compendium used by a highly expanded community. I could not obtain the exact breakdown and statistics of users by profession,[2] but 75,000 copies have already sold since August 15. In these first three months after publication, more copies sold than that best-selling fourteenth edition[3] sold in its entire first year. What does this statistic mean? In this age of anti-intellectualism, more and more “people who work with words” find a need for this most outstanding (and difficult, though user-friendly in many new ways) reference, that is, are concerned with style, etiquette, and the technicalities of turning words on a page into published material. In other words, this statistic seemingly contradicts the notion of anti-intellectualism or might instead result from the population explosion. I take it as a positive harbinger. The more books sell, the more people read them, the more literate they become: the language is excellent and the organization, infinitely rational and “enlightened” in an era that is supposedly moving away from this tendency, away from words into other types of images and consciousness.


I directed my questions to Margaret Mahan, managing editor at the University of Chicago Press until her retirement in 1998, when she began work on the fifteenth edition, manuscript editor[4] by profession, and an authoritative and admired colleague with whom I collaborated on the classics and foreign languages section of this edition. Margaret, part of the team who worked under the supervision of  Linda Halvorson, documents a degree of labor and devotion transcendent in my experience:


     “I revised all the chapters—some with considerable input from various colleagues and others—except for 4 (copyright and permissions), 5 (grammar and usage), 14 (math), and the appendix [There are eighteen chapters and two appendixes]. A number of minor innovations scattered through most chapters were mine, but all were okayed by others. In doing my revision, I rekeyed entire chaptersit was the best way to think, to tighten, and to provide myself with an eerily searchable set of files.”


     Steele: What about CMS interests you the most?


     Mahan: “Chapters 6, 7, and 8 (punctuations, spelling, and compounds,[5] names and terms)—core chapters for editing almost any kind of material. But I love the whole book.”


     Steele: What aspect makes you proudest?


     Mahan: “Reducing verbiage while regaining clarity (with a few exceptions).”


     Steele: What was your favorite part of the task of revision?


     Mahan: “Getting input from colleagues and others who formed an informal circle of advisers. I e-mailed brief polls on matters that I considered changing but needed consensus for, and I phoned or corresponded with many people with specialist knowledge--for example, a former Chicago manuscript editor, now executive editor of Horticulture, who enhanced the botanical section in chapter 8.”


     Steele: Can you give an example of a style change that you regret?


     Mahan: “The preference for roman punctuation following italicized words (some word processors automatically italicize commas, semicolons, etc., after italicized words)—though I took a poll on it, which yielded a clear if not overwhelming yes. By the time we were in page proof, I discovered that Microsoft Word automatically italicized commas, semicolons, and other marks after italicized words. But both options remain open, so do whatever you like, folks!”


     Steele: What do readers most complain about? What do they like the best?


     Mahan: “In each of our recent editions, some readers have complained about the index, although all our indexes have been fine. No doubt many will criticize us for recommending postal-style state abbreviations, which require only two letters and no interior punctuation. I don’t know what readers like best; they seldom tell us” [See my commentary above].


Steele: What, in general, is the most difficult part of copyediting?


     Mahan: “Meeting the deadline while retaining high standards up to the last page of the notes and bibliography.”


     Steele: Could you perform this gargantuan labor again?


     Mahan: “Catharine Seybold and Bruce Young edited the classics twelfth edition and also the thirteenth. John Grossman did the fourteenth and then retired. I retired and started work on the fifteenth almost immediately. Without having hands-on experience as managing editor at Chicago, I couldn’t have done the job. I wouldn’t do it again because I’m no longer in-house. The feedback that will go to existing Chicago personnel will form the basis of the next edition, as earlier feedback undergirded my own work.”


     Steele: The first edition disclaims in its preface, “[T]hroughout…it is assumed that no regulation contained therein is absolutely inviolable.” I have the feeling that many people want to be told what to do by a book like CMS, to find must (or other imperative forms) or should in lieu of more polite suggestions, including the passive voice. CMS style seems to want to avoid imperative forms and leave the realm of options nearly wide open. Can you explain this? Your broad range of readers?


     Mahan: “The manual, at least since the twelfth edition, has always offered guidelines rather than imperatives. Unlike some editors, I don’t fear the passive voice, as long as it isn’t used to avoid precision or responsibility [6] And the fifteenth, by the way, does indeed use should quite frequently (see, e.g., paragraphs 6.35-39 and many others) as well as a few imperatives (e.g., 5.202, under whoever, whomever)…


     “I was advised to keep options down, but when I changed a rule—which didn’t happen that often—I found it very difficult not to offer the old rule as a still acceptable option. I added a few options that I like but others don’t, such as the omission of the possessive s with a name like Descartes (“Descartes’s philosophy” bothers the daylights out of me, though it’s logical and correct). The review chided Chicago for offering options. But your last question explains why we do so—our broad range of readers, some of whom hesitate to break a rule that doesn’t work for them (though we have no problem doing so ourselves) and thus appreciate an ‘official’ alternative.”


     Steele: I notice how the chapter on illustrations and tables has changed. Would you say that the advent of computers into publishing has facilitated or complicated the use of illustrations and tables in books and other media?


     Mahan: “I did quite a lot of work on those. So far, no one has noticed. Perhaps no one refers to them! . . . In earlier editions there were no illustrations of illustrations, which struck me as unfortunate. So we selected samples from various Chicago books and journals to show different kinds of illustrations—charts, line drawing, etc.—along with their captions. The advent of computers has generally made things easier for authors and publishers, but overconfidence can kill. Since many authors now furnish illustrations in digital form, we added some guidelines to avoid problems that result from faulty or unreadable files. And we included some guidelines, missing in previous editions, on preparing a gallery of illustrations.”


     Steele: What convinced you to branch out to American Sign Language (an innovation in the fifteenth edition)?


     Mahan: “An editor wrote to us a year or two before we started work on CMS 15 and suggested that we include some material on the way ASL is conveyed in print—for example, in ASL manuals. We agreed that not only would it be useful, even if only to a relatively small number of readers, but would offer something brand-new to CMS. We asked Gallaudet University Press to furnish the section, and I found it remarkably refreshing.”


     Steele: I’ve been told that there are few if any equivalents to CMS in other languages—Le bon usage in French is more of a grammar than a style book. How do you account for this?


     Mahan: “I’m no authority, but believe publishers in other countries, especially in continental Europe, rarely employ copy editors. They expect their authors to furnish publishable material. Incidentally, I used Le bon usage for French documentation; it does cover some matters of capitalization and the like that CMS deals with.”


     Steele: What a treasure. Thanks so much. You have shed a great deal of light on the experience of editing such a behemoth project, the likes of which could absorb a lifetime.[7]


Copyright © Marta Steele 2003, 2004, 2010. All rights reserved.







[1] “copy editors, proofreaders, and ‘other gropers in the labyrinth of style’.”

[2] Taken from another interview of Margaret Mahan [see further, below] in Copy Editor by Lisa Burrell: “[A] remarkable number of users of the manual are not in academic publishing. Indeed, many aren’t in publishing at all. We’ve broadened the scope out of respect for these people and, of course, to improve sales.”

[3] The eleventh edition was the longest lasting, “so far.”

[4] The latest edition of CMS refers to copy editors as manuscript editors, as did the twelfth edition. This, according to the press packet, which also informs us that at the turn of the nineteenth century proofreaders were above copy editors, who merely read aloud from the copy to proofreaders who made most of the corrections. The second edition, which came out soon after the first, responded to another step in the evolution of the manual’s reading public, the advent of the profession of librarian in this country.

[5] Please be aware that CMS produced a magisterial and lengthy table on whether or not to hyphenate scores of different compound prototypes; the fifteenth edition condenses the space by using a glossary format but includes more material.

[6] I italicize here since so many stylists (teachers and editors, e.g.) advise avoiding the passive in most instances.

[7] Thanks also to Chicago Marketing Manager Ellen Gibson and Chicago Managing Editor Anita Samen for their contributions to my research for this article.