Twitter and the Chicago Manual | Bleader

Twitter and the Chicago Manual


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  • Windell Oskay
Some minor celebrities of the publishing world gathered in the University of Chicago’s International House last night for a discussion on The Chicago Manual of Style, which celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2006. Contrary to what I insinuated in a blog post yesterday, the room was full, which suggests a decent fan base for the manual and its creators, or an unusual number of people with “control issues,” or both. Carol Fisher Saller, whose online Chicago Manual of Style Q&A was described by moderator Alison Cuddy as “the Car Talk of the Chicago Manual,” was unflaggingly smiley (she also authors children’s books), and her boss, University of Chicago Press managing editor for books Anita Samen, had the patient mien of a longtime wordsmith. U. of C. linguist Jason Riggle directs the Chicago Language Modeling Laboratory. And Ben Zimmer, whose charge (enviable or unenviable, I’m not sure) was to follow William Safire as the New York Times’ On Language columnist, used phrases like “lends a certain kind of affective stance to your writing” with regard, in this instance, to the emoticon, whose evolution Zimmer has tracked. It used to have a nose, he said, but now “there’s been a big onslaught of noseless emoticons.”

The conversation reflected a certain anxiety, or excitement, about the way that electronic communication is changing written language. In fact the anxiety was sort of writ all over the event, which organizers tried to make as e-interactive as possible. On either side of the stage were two large screens projecting a live Twitter feed (hashtag #centuryofstyle), a sort of instant-feedback loop about the event, interspersed with audience-polling questions.

What do we do about Twitter? Saller said that CMOS editors had considered including Twitter citations in the latest edition, the 16th, but eventually decided against it—it was hard to tell then that it would gain the social traction that it has, and CMOS was worried about looking passe. Samen said that CMOS editors aren’t uninterested in the form: “I have a site—a tweet,” she said by way of, I think, establishing that she has a Twitter account. “It would be nice to know, actually, how to cite a tweet,” Zimmer said—for instance, Sarah Palin’s notorious neologism “refudiate,” coined on Twitter. He said that while traditional media figure out how to deal with tweeting, practitioners of the form are themselves establishing a style: “There is no Twitter style guide. People are coming up with it on their own, organically.”

It’s a style that doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the live-panel format, though, and while the discussion was lively there were some awkward moments. Asked one question, Zimmer circled back to answer another, saying that he’d become “distracted by the flow of tweets here.” Samen declared that she’d like to abolish the en-dash, a statement immediately misattributed online to Saller, who pointed it out later. “It’s all over the Internet!” she said. The twitterers also appeared uncertain whether the mark in question was the en-dash or its relative the em-dash, which, while it has its critics, is not bound for imminent extinction.

The inaugural polling question was “What is the definition of style?,” as if that was, as regards editorial style, a matter of opinion rather than fact. Most audience respondents thought it was “ways of speaking and writing,” an answer that has the distinction of being at least partially incorrect—editorial style does not really have anything to do with “ways of speaking.” Cuddy eventually noted the incongruity: “This is one poll question where there is a definitive answer,” she said. Later on, pollsters wondered if style could be “flouted” in e-mails. “Why are we even asking this question?” Cuddy wondered to the panel. There was a silence. “I don’t know,” Saller said before yielding to the next respondent. Meanwhile the audience opined tentatively that the answer was “depends on the audience,” before deciding that it was actually “yes.”

This is not to get all crotchety: this was actually a really fun discussion, packed with enjoyably quotidian detail. Is “comprised of” correct? Anita Samen says no. What of the serial, or Oxford, comma? There was some agreement that it should be renamed the Chicago comma. Is “whom” a dead word? It’s endangered, Riggle said; Zimmer compared it to “shall.” Split infinitives, conjunctions at the beginnings of sentences, prepositions at their ends? Prohibitions against them are “fake rules,” Zimmer said. And the passive voice! It was agreed that there’s nothing wrong with it. This was the real red meat of the program, in fact its raison d’etre—listening to learned panelists talk about the objects of their work and study. Learning what your fellow audience members thought about, say, whether electronic communication is degrading written language was far less interesting, though there were some illuminating moments. “#happiness for a #grammargeek,” somebody tweeted at some point, so that the audience would know what they (an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun, it was agreed) thought about the event. Meanwhile there were still people on stage, talking.

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