The Chicago Manual of Style on grammar -- and itself

The Chicago Manual of Style on grammar -- and itself

Now that I’ve started a series of posts (every Friday, starting here) on The Chicago Manual of Style, it’s time to look at just how this huge book’s second section, “Style and Usage,” begins. The first section, “Publishing Process,” is less useful for those of you not involved professionally in publishing, so “Style and Usage” fits a more general audience. Actually, I think it’s best to master style and usage of words before publication is planned… but they didn’t ask me for these commentaries.

Part II covers Grammar and Usage; Punctuation; Spelling, Distinctive Treatment of Words, and Compounds; Names, Terms, and Titles of Words; Numbers, Abbreviations; Mathematics in Type; and Quotations and Dialogue.

Whew. Stick with me.

The introduction to the section states, “In its usual sense, grammar is the set of rules governing how words are put together in sentences to communicate ideas — or the study of these rules. Native speakers of a language learn them unconsciously. The rules govern most constructions in any given language.”

Each time I read this, I can’t help thinking of non-native speakers reading this to get help. In one sense, the word “grammar” has two definitions — the rules and the study of them. “The rules govern most constructions” — but, the introduction goes on, “The small minority of constructions that lie outside of these rules fall mostly into the category of idiom and customary usage.”

Oh, fine, I think of language-learners thinking. Most constructions are here, but not for “customary usage.” Hundreds of pages of advice, and why?

As the manual itself puts it: “It seems that the more we learn, the less we know.”

Now there’s encouragement to stick with a doorstop of a book and learn from it, eh?

But then there’s a quotation from someone described as “the illustrious editor in chief of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Even before I copied down the quotation in my notebook, I left myself a note, “(NB, no hyphens or name).”

My journalistic style education and work taught me that “editor-in-chief” is a compound adjectives, with hyphens as I’ve used it in this sentence. The year 1991 is given for the quotation, but no name of this person is given. Surely the University of Chicago, in setting itself up to present a book meant to carry authority as “the OED” does, could show the responsibility of mentioning the name of the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

As for what this anonymous person said, here it is: “An entirely adequate description of English grammar is still a distant target and at present seemingly an unreachable one, the complications being what they are.”

What are they? Stay tuned on future Fridays.

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  • The first chapter reinforces my impression that the book was intended for the editors at the University of Chicago Press, and not necessarily for the general public. Not much different than that the Uniform Manual of Style is for lawyers writing briefs and law reviews (and curiously enough, not for law publishers until recently).

    As far as native speakers, most haven't figured out that "fewer" requires a plural subject; conversely I wonder if the Manual recognizes such current abominations as "grow your business."

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