Episode 364: April 18, 2013
by Mignon Fogarty
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Today's topics are style guides and how to deal with book titles.
Joe called in with this question:
With all of the style guides that are out there -- “APA,” “MLA” -- why would anyone use "Chicago"? I was finding it very hard to believe when I first looked at the “Chicago” style guide after the “APA” and “MLA” that the “Chicago” style guide that was something that was used by anything less than a commercial writer. Possibly on someone's doctoral thesis, but for an undergraduate to have to deal with that kind of detail just seems ridiculous. Just wanting to hear your opinion on this.
What Is the Chicago Manual of Style?
The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the oldest and most comprehensive style guides on the market. The fact that it is so comprehensive can be both a strength and a weakness, and Joe points out the weaknesses: it can take a while to find what you are looking for, and the size of the book can be intimidating to students. Nevertheless, I find it indispensable because it has so much information that I can't find anywhere else.
You Can Use Online or Print Versions
A huge, recent change that makes Chicago and many other style guides easier to use is the availability of online and digital versions of the books.
I used to use the print books, and I often had a hard time finding the information I needed. A few years ago, I started subscribing to the online versions of The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, and now I can search and find the answers I’m looking for in seconds. It’s a little more expensive than buying the print books, but for me, and I imagine for many people who write for a living, it’s worth it for the convenience.
In the past, I used to start with a smaller stylebook such as AP and then go to Chicago if I couldn’t find the answer, but now it’s so easy to search both that I always check both right away.
Benefits of the Chicago Manual of Style
Joe should appreciate Chicago’s completeness though; Chicago it often has information that isn’t in other stylebooks. For example, in his question, Joe shortened the name of the book to Chicago instead of calling it The Chicago Manual of Style. As I was writing this article, I needed to know how to format a shortened book title. That information wasn’t in the AP Stylebook, but it was in Chicago. (I learned that you treat a shortened title just as you would a regular title--you and italicize it, or in the case of Grammar Girl style, it goes in quotation marks because listener questions are already italicized).
It turned out that the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers also had a section on shortened book titles, so in this case I could have looked there next and found the answer, but often I just jump to Chicago because it’s so complete I know the answer will always be there.
Another example of something I could find only in Chicago is how to handle punctuation in bulleted or numbered lists. I couldn't quickly find anything on this subject in MLA or AP, but it is covered in Chicago.
These types of questions might seem arcane, but for me they come up every day, and I imagine that they would come up at least occasionally for other writers, including undergraduates.
Different Style Guides Have Different Uses
Style guides also have different uses. For example, the Associated Press Stylebook is primarily for writers who work at newspapers or news magazines; the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers is obviously for writers of research papers, and it's used most commonly in the liberal arts and humanities. Writers of research papers in the sciences, on the other hand, may be more likely to use the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or American Medical Association Manual of Style. If I had to peg down The Chicago Manual of Style, I'd say that its primary audience is book authors, but as you might have gathered by now, I think Chicago is great for everyone.
Again, this may all seem arcane, but it is good to have the right style guide for the right purpose and to know what the other style guides advise. I often encounter people who have learned a style but mistakenly think it’s a rule. The most common example is the serial comma--the comma before the “and” in a series such as “red, white, and blue.” Chicago recommends you use the comma, and AP recommends using it only when it’s required for clarity. The recommendation varies from style to style, but many people think the style they learned is the only right way to do it.
Of course, there are other style guides that I haven’t mentioned yet. One that’s even thicker than Chicago and that I use multiple times each week is Garner’s Modern American Usage. Many people in business use The Gregg Reference Manual. There are others. I could go on and on, but the important points are that there are different style guides and you should find the right one for your needs, and know the difference between a style and a rule.
[Note, this is a significant rewrite of an article that originally appeared November 2, 2006.]