Some geeks get their jollies from science fiction; others write code or learn dead languages. And some of us have a thing for reference books.
When I worked as a project manager in the translation industry, a coworker once fielded a call from an angry client complaining about the interpreter we’d sent. He’d caught the Greek interpreter red-handed, he said, sitting around reading a Greek dictionary—what kind of fluent Greek expert could he be if he needed to brush up before a gig by reading the dictionary? My coworker put the client on hold and gave me a confused look: “Is that normal?” We polled the office; every single one of our resident word-lovers thought that reading the dictionary for fun was a perfectly normal and enjoyable thing to do. We recognized that misunderstood interpreter as one of our own. Why wouldn’t he read the dictionary? Dictionaries are fascinating!
Dictionaries, grammar books, encyclopedias, style guides: I love ’em all. My home office is full of them, and my bookmarks tab offers even more. I love the Tamil dictionary a friend brought me from India and my Fowler’s and my BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations. But my greatest love is reserved for the granddaddy of them all, the Chicago Manual of Style. That’s the one pictured above, in tiny fondant form, on my birthday cake.*
CMOS, as it’s often called, has been around since 1906. It weighs three pounds, which is why I’m glad there’s also a searchable online edition available by subscription. I consult both many times a day, and I often read it without a question in mind, just to get a take on something I don’t fully understand or to see what little treasures I can dig up. Whenever I’m stuck or confused, I turn to my CMOS. If I make an edit I think the client might question, I add a note referring him or her to the chapter and verse underlying my decision. I have settled bar bets with it.**
If you’re a professional editor or indexer who works in US English, you already own this book; if you’re interested in learning more about editing, or want to understand US style conventions, edit your own work better, or improve your writing, it’s well worth the $40 price tag. I also recommend checking in periodically with the Chicago Style Q&A, a monthly “ask the editors” column. It touches on questions not answered in CMOS (believe it or not, there are some things missing), and it’s often hilarious:
Q. I’m using Shelley Jackson’s short story “Skin” as a primary source in an article I’m writing, but the story is published only as tattoos on the bodies of volunteers (one word per volunteer). How do I cite this work?
A. Cite it the same way you would “cite” your sandwich or your miniblinds or the fluff under your bathroom rug—not by trying to pretend it is a bibliographic source, but simply by telling what it is. In the text or in a note, write something like “Shelley Jackson’s ‘Skin’ is a story published only as tattoos on the bodies of volunteers (one word per volunteer).”
Q&A editor Carol Saller blogs at The Subversive Copy Editor and has also written a short and entertaining book by the same name that deals not with grammar but with the relationships editors must negotiate in their working lives. What’s particularly telling about the Q&A is that the CMOS editors treat its rules with far less rigidity than its readers often do! They cite its first edition to argue that these rules “cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law”—it’s OK, they remind us, to use common sense.
Whatever my former interpretation client might think, looking things up isn’t a sign of weakness or an admission of a lack of knowledge. It means that you understand that there are limits to the knowledge of even the most brilliant experts; that you know you’re not infallible; and that you’re not lazy. When new graduates who want to learn editing ask me for advice, I tell them to invest in good reference books and consult them constantly. How else will you ever find out what you don’t already know?
*My husband Joe had it made by our neighbors, the astonishingly talented folks at Whipped Bakeshop. It depicts the 15th edition only because he couldn’t find a good high-resolution image of the cover of the 16th edition.
**This would be easier to do if they’d publish an iPhone app already.