Today, in a historic first, the reclusive 110-year-old Chicago Manual of Style grants an interview to its youthful offspring, the online “Chicago Style Q&A,” which has been answering readers’ questions on behalf of the Manual since 1997.
Q&A: Welcome, Chicago Manual of Style! Do you mind if we call you CMOS?
CMOS: Not at all. And congratulations on your new book, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?
Q&A: Thank you. We couldn’t have done it without you. We’re huge fans, by the way.
CMOS: Very kind of you. But before we begin, we have one small request. We realize that we agreed to be interviewed, but now that we’re actually here, it seems obvious that you’re the Q&A, and you’re used to answering questions, whereas we’re more used to being in control of everything. So we’re wondering if you would mind if we asked the questions today.
CMOS: Excellent! Let’s start by taking a look back in time to the beginning of the “Chicago Style Q&A.” What was the very first question posted at the Q&A, and why was it chosen?
Q&A: Well, OK . . . that would have been in February 1997, and the first question was whether to hyphenate the phrase “as yet unidentified.” We decided against it.
We probably chose a question about hyphens because we get so many queries about them. That’s understandable; it’s difficult to find a ruling in a reference book for an exact phrase you might be struggling with. And hyphens are tricky: a three-year-old is three years old; a middle-class worker is in the middle class.
CMOS: So are most questions from readers about punctuation?
Q&A: Oh my, no. Two other categories get far and away the largest number of questions: Usage (by which we mean grammar and syntax) and Documentation (by which we mean citation). We realize that you allocate a huge portion of yourself to those topics, but you can’t cover every little thing, and there are always new questions.
CMOS: Who reads the Q&A and submits questions? Have you developed a sense of your readership over the years?
Q&A: Yes, very much so. In fact, one of the things we love about our mail is its diversity. People from all over the world and of all ages and education levels write with questions about grammar and style. We hear from professional editors and professors who have detailed questions about how to cite something; people who are learning English; novelists and businesspeople who want to get something right or who have a disagreement with a colleague or editor; students who are struggling to write papers.
CMOS: It’s wonderful that people care about grammar and style. With all that demand, have you ever considered answering questions on Twitter or Facebook?
Q&A: We would love to if we had enough staff. But the only people we trust to answer on your behalf are the professional editors who work here at the University of Chicago Press, and they have their hands full editing manuscripts.
CMOS: So if you can’t answer all the questions, how do you decide which ones to answer?
Q&A: We try to mix it up so that everyone learns something every month, regardless of their level of expertise. We choose questions that are frequently asked or questions whose answers are hard to find. Sometimes a questioner is so desperate we feel obliged to help. And of course sometimes a writer is just begging for a cheeky reply and we can’t resist. We try to both educate and entertain.
CMOS: Ah. Yes. Actually, we’ve been meaning to say something about that. This is a bit awkward, but now and then you . . . embarrass us.
CMOS: For instance, the time you asked, “Would you set your hair on fire if CMOS told you to?” Or when you told someone to “buy a dictionary—and pick up your socks”?
Q&A: Well. I suppose it’s easier for you to be all cool and proper. We’re the ones in the hot seat here, having to answer questions. And it’s not as though you never embarrass us. Take 5.46, where you prefer “he or she” to the singular they, even though the latter use has become more widely accepted since you last . . . um . . . had a makeover. What are we supposed to do with that?
CMOS: Hmm. Touché. Let’s just move on, shall we?
CMOS: Has there ever been a question that was too hard to answer?
Q&A: Gosh, yes. Many! As you know, we even keep a file called “Befuddlements” that we turn over to you when you’re getting ready for a new edition. The most difficult questions, however, are those that for practical reasons the Manual can’t address. They involve subtle points of English grammar that native speakers know intuitively but find difficult to explain, such as “What’s the difference between to and at?” If we can help, we try. We point the reader to a website or another reference book. Occasionally we ask an expert.
CMOS: You mentioned questions that show the writer’s desperation. Where’s the drama in style or grammar questions?
Q&A: There’s plenty of room for drama. When someone’s correctness has been challenged—by a teacher, a colleague, an editor—it’s hard not to take it personally. One of the best things we can do is to reassure people. In many cases, the writer is actually correct, and often there’s some flexibility in the issue, which means that both the writer and the challenger are correct.
CMOS: We can appreciate that. Frankly, sometimes we feel misunderstood—that we have an undeserved reputation for formality and rigidity. In our preface we always recommend bending or breaking rules that don’t work well in a given context! But let’s face it—nobody reads the preface.
Q&A: Yes, there’s some truth to that. And yet it wouldn’t do for you to be all loosey-goosey. Do you remember when you turned fifteen and decided to give more “options” for stylings and we got letters from people who didn’t like it? People love rules and guidelines! They just need encouragement to use them wisely.
CMOS: So together we’ll aim for that?
Q&A: With pleasure.