Some people get so excited when they talk about capital letters that they become breathless. Anita Samen, an editor of the new 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, published this month, is one of them.
"I am so excited about this manual I can't even talk!" Samen said, interrupting herself on the phone the other day as she was describing the proper use of regular size and smaller size capital letters. (More about that later.)
"Heads are spinning," Samen said, among those authors, editors and publishers who regard the Chicago Manual as the bible of printing style, grammar and punctuation.
It has been 10 years since the last edition of the manual, which is published by the University of Chicago Press. That one has sold 500,000 copies.
The new one is the most significant revision since the 12th edition in 1969. It is the first edition, for instance, to address electronic publishing seriously. It also has the manual's first chapter on grammar and usage, written by Bryan Garner, with instructions on whether it is all right to use "and" and "but" at the beginning of a sentence. "And" has been OK since Chaucer's time, Garner said.
"The shibboleth persists that it isn't," he said. But the great grammarian H.W. Fowler, author of Modern English Usage, called it "a monstrous doctrine," he said. Garner, himself the author of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, did a study on the issue. "Ten percent of sentences in first-rate writing begin with `and' or `but,'" he said.
The new manual is a result of 10 years of queries and suggestions from readers. "We used to take style questions over the phone," said Samen, who is also managing editor of the books division of the University of Chicago Press. "I always thought we should make it a 900 number."
Showing how that might go, she lowered her voice seductively: "You want to use a hyphen there? Ooooo, that's very naughty!"
The editors also placed queries on Internet discussion groups used by writers, publishers and copy editors. The process was coordinated by Linda Halvorson, the press' editorial director for reference books, and Mary Laur, the reference division's project editor.
For the first time, the manual had an advisory board with representatives from the academic world, publishing and the electronic communications industry -- among them, the Shakespearean scholar David Bevington of the University of Chicago; Mary Knoblauch, the recently retired writing coach of The Chicago Tribune; June Smith, president of the college division of Houghton Mifflin; and John Hevelin of Sun Microsystems.
The final decisions were made by a team of some 20 representatives of departments of Chicago Press, including production, design and information systems.
Not surprisingly, given the passionate nature of editors, there were disagreements along the way. A big one, Samen said, was about hyphens and dashes. There are three kinds. The biggest are "em" dashes and are used to set off explanatory phrases like, "My friends -- that is, my former friends -- ganged up on me." The middle-size or "en" dashes are traditionally used to connect a range of things, like "the July-August issue of a magazine." The smallest, the hyphens, are used in compound words like "a tie-in for a television show."
Maybe it was time, Samen suggested, to retire the middle-size one. It wasn't necessary anymore, she said, and it didn't aid comprehension. But no. Samen's idea was met with strong opposition from people on the Internet discussion groups. Finally, in an e-mail message (spelled with a hyphen in the Chicago Manual), Samen capitulated.