Carol Fisher Saller (aka The Subversive Copy Editor) gave a roomful of copy editors a sneak peek of The University of Chicago Press editorial staff’s book, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?, on the last day of March at the ACES 2016 conference. At the time, her cherry-picking of the best excerpts and her spot-on delivery made the book seem like a snark-fest for us editors, wordsmiths, and logophiles.
But Can I, which is now published and widely available, is a small collection of the best questions and answers from The Chicago Manual of Style‘s online Q&A. Though the answers are sometimes quite technical, often filled with exasperation, and occasionally sarcastic, they are always useful and informative. Although the book didn’t turn out to be the editorial laugh-a-thon I had expected (perhaps hoped is a better word), it’s still a good read and a worthwhile resource.
And, to be fair, it does contain a healthy serving of snark. (For example, when someone submitted the question, “Can I use the first person?” the CMoS editors answered, quite succinctly, “Evidently.”)
The Q&As in the book are divided into seven chapters of roughly related topics. For example, Chapter 2, “‘President of the Mess Hall’ is going to look pretty silly,” encompasses questions about proper nouns and titles of works. The book also includes an index, making it a great resource for book-bound editors who need help with the rare and odd problems that the full CMoS doesn’t explicitly cover.
And many of the questions asked and answered in But Can I are both rare and odd indeed.
There is a lot to learn in this small book, but I think the most interesting revelations are what the questions themselves reveal. After reading But Can I, I have drawn two conclusions:
First, when it comes to citing and alphabetizing sources, every conceivable hole in CMoS documentation will eventually become someone’s bad day. Consider these difficult (and paraphrased) questions from the book:
- How do I indicate the access date for a web page that I accessed the day it was published if it was published on the other side of the international date line and therefore accessed the day before it was published?
- How do I cite a food label?
- Using the author-date system, how do I differentiate between two sources written in the same year for which the first seven authors are identical?
- How do I cite a short story that exists only as a series of tattoos on the bodies of volunteers?
Second, people too often turn to The University of Chicago Press editors in hope of finding The One Right Answer to their editorial questions. Take these, for example:
- In the salutation of a letter, should it be “Hi, Ruth,” or “Hi Ruth,”?
- Which phrase is more correct: “less and less likely” or “more and more unlikely”?
- What is the right preposition after the noun change?
- Is it OK or okay?
Yes, the editors of The University of Chicago Press are authorities on style and usage, but they are by no means authoritarian in their proclamations. Although they give answers to these questions and others like them, the answer is often either “it depends” or “either is fine,” because there is no unbreakable rule for situations like these. As I like to put it, copy editing is not math. Or, as Ms. Saller writes in the intro to Chapter 4,
Sometimes, sorting out acceptable grammar and usage calls for more than a reference book. Sometimes, we actually have to . . . think. [ellipsis points in original]
But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? is small, yes, and it is a good read for copy editors and a great supplement to The Chicago Manual of Style itself. But I’m sure Ms. Saller and her colleagues would agree: No style guide can ever supplant a thoughtful, vigilant editor.
Image from The University of Chicago Press.