Archive » June 14, 2006
By Shelly Lowenkopf
A foolish consistency is the hob-goblin of small minds.
– R.W. Emerson
Call me Curmudgeon.
One of the joys of reaching the stage of fogy-dom is to be found in observation of the way two or more seemingly disparate notions collide in the nuclear accelerator of the mind. These collisions produce ideas, insights, and, to preserve the alliteration, inspiration.
One of these recent collisions began with a phone call from Barnaby Conrad, using the device of affectionate irony to complain about something I’d done – the preposition becomes shady here – “to” him is the way Conrad puts it, “for” him is the way I’d intended it. The other part of the collision came during a coffee-time discussion with Marcia Meier.
The subject in both cases was reference books. Barnaby Conrad was affecting mock outrage over a copy of “The American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the American Language,” third edition. The object of the discussion with Marcia Meier was that relic of the pre-information age, “The Encyclopedia Britannica.”
This hoary dinosaurus Brittanicus from a past shared by many of us was thought to be the tool every youngster needed in order to successfully contemplate the rigors of education within and beyond high school. I can still hear the ghosts of teachers past, exhorting me to “look it up in Britannica.” Today, of course, we have Google; we have online access to scores of reference works, arrayed for our pleasure in a rainbow of disciplines.
I’m used to Barnaby Conrad’s complaints about my birthday gift to him of some years back. Every time he consults “The American Heritage Unabridged,” he is seduced by the format, organization, and use of language. AH is one of the great American dictionaries by such standards as its format, its completeness, the composition of its usage panel, and the way it leads the user from one feature to another. Thus the Conrad’s Complaint Syndrome – the inability to stop reading after a simple consultation.
This is all prologue to the observation of reference works found close to hand in the work areas of writers. I wish I’d have thought to secure John Sanford’s well-used, almost battered “Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged” second edition, thought by many to be the acme of American lexicographical art. Watching John Sanford at work on that remarkable dictionary was – for me – what it must have been like to see Johann S. Bach, trying out a new organ. Not content with the perfection of MW2, the Merriam-Webster’s people shot themselves in the foot with the revised MW3, replete with, among other outrages, suggestions for breaking words at line’s end with truncations and tortures worthy of Abu Ghraib.
In fairness to those who do not share my unalloyed fondness for the new American Heritage unabridged, there is Merriam-Webster’s “New Collegiate,” eleventh edition, which, while not an unabridged, is comprehensive enough to have gained popularity with many in-house editors of books and publications.
Sometime during the reign of Buckley I, before these vagrant musings about the books among us began to appear in the Montecito Journal, I found occasion to fire off a snippy note to firstname.lastname@example.org. My complaints focused on the appearance of my name in MJ with two different spellings, as well, my perception of a glaring lack of standardized use in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, use of italic type face, and the like, matters known in the trade (newspaper and book) as copyediting.
I suggested the prompt acquisition of a usage guide, often referred to by those of us who write and edit our way through the back aisles of Chaucer’s and Tecolote as a style guide. Buckley I, as was his wont with other of my snippy notes, replied with the agreeable, level tone commensurate with his position. He sympathized with my suggestion for standardization and assured me all those who submitted copy to MJ had been duly impressed with the need to check those very things.
This approach is the writer’s equivalent of turning the institution over to the inmates because, for one thing, we all have different styles or approaches to setting down numbers, punctuation, abbreviations, and the like. Some of us render titles of, say, books, newspapers, or television series in italic, while the rest of us set these titles forth in roman type face, articulated by quotation marks. There are, in fact, those among us – The New York Times, for instance – who render the names of newspapers in roman with no quotation marks. And disbelieve it at your peril; there are those of us who have marked preferences between the so-called straight quotation marks and those with a more cursive feel to them, sometimes referred to as curly quotes.
It gets to be even more fun – and notional. Within these very pages, Buckley II has announced a preference for rendering the names of individuals who are still among the living in bold face. Those of you with an eye for such things will notice that I am indulged within these lines with a license to use the serial comma, which is to say MJ would not ordinarily set off the third or fourth item in a list of attributes with the final comma. MJ would quit at two commas and be, as Huck Finn once observed in another context, “rotten glad of it.”
Thus the final collision of ideas and concepts for this time. The “other” reference book close to hand for most professional writers is a style guide. For books, the overwhelming choice is “CMOS,” the University of Chicago Press manual of style, also known as “The Chicago Manual of Style.” For the book writer, this is every bit as comprehensive and useful as “The American Heritage Unabridged” is in rendering a decision on how to represent numbers, abbreviations, acronyms, and the like. (I intended that list so you could see the serial comma.)
Newspapers famously have style guides that have use for the magazine and newspaper writer, the most notable one being “The New York Times Style Guide.” The Associated Press also has a useful one; so too does the Los Angeles Times. As is the case with cookbooks, so too with style guides – a writer can’t have too many. Even with the ones I have, it is important to recognize the person or persons on a publication who serves as the watchdog for this mechanical sort of editing. Within these pages, the onus falls upon Guillaume Doane, who not only allows me the freedom of the serial comma, he also questions such things as to make me groan at the thought of how, in fact or misguided usage, I might have strayed (ed. note: for anyone else the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, would be excised immediately – GD). Content editors edit for logic, excellence of language, continuity, dramatic effect, and the like – and Guillaume does that, too. As well, he performs what I call the mechanical stuff, the very things you might not notice, except in their breech.
The more I read, and certainly the more I write, I find myself nodding in tribute to “The American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the American Language,” “The Chicago Manual of Style,” “The New York Times Style Guide,” and to those who past and present have held my feet to their fires.
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