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The Stylist's Stylist

Meet the anonymous editor who plays Miss Manners to the blue-pencil set.

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Its comprehensive discussion of endnotes, em dashes, indexes, and the like spans 956 pages, but there are some issues the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style just doesn't get into. That's where its chicagomanualofstyle.org comes in: each month the staff posts a new batch of Q and A's addressing readers' questions on style and usage. For instance:

"Q. The menu in our cafeteria shows that enchiladas are available 'Tues.-Fri.' However, when I ordered one on a Wednesday, I was informed that enchiladas are available on Tuesday AND Friday, not Tuesday THROUGH Friday. When I informed the cafeteria manager that this was incorrect, she seemed shocked and refused to change the sign. Please help determine who is correct!

A. Although the sign was incorrect, I'm not sure you should annoy the person who provides the enchiladas."

Or: "Q. At the annual meeting of our local PBK chapter, dispute on the pronunciation of 'archival' arose: whether the stress falls on the first or the second syllable. Give us your wisdom. I will pass it on in the column I write weekly in a local paper about any subject that pops into my head.

A. As a style guide for writers, CMOS must resist the temptation to weigh in on an issue of pronunciation. We are editors, absorbed in our manuscripts. We can go for days without even speaking. I suggest you consult the linguists who write dictionaries for this purpose. (I'm sorry this won't give you anything to put in your column, but thanks for your help with mine.)"

Saucy responses like these have earned the CMS Q and A something of a following since its debut in 1997. Nearly 30,000 people have signed up to receive monthly e-mail alerts when the Web site has been updated. In April alone the site received more than 152,500 page views. It reached an even wider audience through the Readings section of the February issue of Harper's, which reprinted several exchanges (including the enchilada quip) under the headline "Stet Offensive."

The pert replies are the work of a single person--an assistant managing editor who supplied us with the pseudonym Jody Fisher. The policy of the manual's publisher, the University of Chicago Press, prevents Fisher, 54, from revealing her identity. ("It really pained me that my name wasn't in Harper's," she says.) That's because until a few years ago, when the press stopped accepting style questions over the phone, she and her fellow manuscript editors often found themselves besieged by callers too lazy to look things up themselves. Others took up the editors' time with minuscule matters. Anita Samen, now managing editor of the press's book division, once found herself trapped on the phone by a woman demanding help with her daughter's wedding invitations. "She had very detailed questions about what should be in italics and what would look best in what font," Samen says. "I appreciated her interest in everything being comme il faut, but . . . "

The original idea for the Q and A was that Fisher would choose illuminating questions to answer online and ignore the rest; it was meant to be a marketing tool for the press, not a public service. But depending on how busy she is with the rest of her workload, Fisher sometimes finds herself e-mailing personal responses to readers. "I wasn't supposed to, but I can't stop myself," she says. "It doesn't take much time, and I feel like I've really helped someone." She signs her responses "Staff" and sends them from a dedicated account so recipients don't learn her name.

About 5 to 20 questions are submitted to the Q and A site each day. Some--like the one that read "I want to know about the type and use of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and other basic conventions in English language"--do go unanswered. Some Fisher responds to using one of 135 templates she's created for frequently asked questions on subjects like how to abbreviate academic degrees (caps, no periods) and whether to separate sentences with one space or two (one). The more complicated and creative ones usually go on the site. Readers who ask Fisher to judge disputes are most likely to get replies. "If they're arguing with a boss, and the boss is wrong, I have to say, 'You're right, you're right, you're right!'" she says.

Fisher, also a mother of two kids who's written five children's books, got her start in publishing 28 years ago as a researcher and copy editor at TV Guide. She joined the U. of C. Press in 1991, then left after ten years to work as a children's book editor at Carus Publishing Company. While she was gone another editor managed the Q and A, doing his best to maintain the tone she'd established. "There are times when I look at the archive and I can't tell if he wrote it or I wrote it," Fisher says. In 2003 she rejoined the press and resumed the job.

In another exchange that made it into the Harper's excerpt, a reader inquired about the proper use of emoticons within parentheses: "Should I (1) incorporate the emoticon into the closing of the parentheses (giving a dual purpose to the closing parenthesis, such as in this case. :-)"? Or "(2) simply leave the emoticon up against the closing parenthesis, ignoring the bizarre visual effect of the doubled closing parenthesis (as I am doing here, producing a doubled-chin effect :-))"? Fisher's response read, "Until academic standards decline enough to accommodate the use of emoticons, I'm afraid CMOS is unlikely to treat their styling. . . . And the problems you've posed in this note give us added incentive to keep our distance. (But I kind of like that double-chin effect.)"

Since the Q and A's reputation for humor has spread, some readers are disappointed if they get a straightforward reply. After one complained that Fisher's answer wasn't funny, "I wrote back and said, 'Give me a break. I'm a full-time senior editor, and I've got kids,'" she says, laughing.

Despite the Q and A's often dry tone, Fisher tries not to come off as haughty or rude. The few times she's been inappropriately sharp with a reader, she's apologized. "I felt really bad," she says. "A lot of writers show that they're extremely self-conscious about asking a question. They say, 'I'm not saying this correctly, forgive my punctuation.' I feel like it takes some nerve to write the question, and if I'm not respectful, that's just terrible. I mean, this is really arcane stuff, and there's no reason why people ought to know any of it."

Now and then her humor just goes over a reader's heads. When someone asked, "What should be the average number of words in an instruction manual?," she replied, "That would be 38,000 words, on average," assuming that readers would understand she was supplying an absurd answer to an absurd question. "Then someone wrote in to me and said, 'I don't know how you can say that it should be a specific number of words. Different manuals would have different blah blah blah,'" Fisher says. "And then they said, 'Or was that meant to be funny?' Yeah, it was meant to be funny."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Jody Fisher" photo by Jim Newberry.

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