Staying up-to-date with the evolution of the English language is a major part of an editor’s work. Should Black be capitalized referencing race? Can Google be used as a verb? Is “queen” really a word?
(Of course, it is, but I still found myself asking this question while editing a book about Renaissance royalty; once you read “queen” 500 times, it looks very strange. What’s up with all those vowels stuck together? Who decided that “qu” should make a “kw” sound?)
When editors run into these types of questions, we turn to style guides, dictionaries, and other trustworthy resources (such as Grammar Girl and Purdue OWL). These resources help editors to stay on the same page, which is essential so that different publishers don’t have wildly different standards of spelling or formatting. The fact that there are different dialects, accents, and style guides already introduces enough confusion and inconsistency into the language as is!
In this blog post, I want to introduce three foundational resources—the Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, and the Oxford English Dictionary. Many of you are probably familiar with these resources, but I want to expound upon how editors and proofreaders use these resources in their work and why these resources (and others like them) are essential.
The Chicago Manual of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style is a style guide, which means that it provides guidelines and rules for grammar, punctuation, and wording, among many other topics. CMOS maintains some of the standards and rules that govern the English language from a top-down perspective. (This kind of top-down governing of language is called “prescriptive grammar,” but that’s for another blog post.)
Editors use CMOS to ensure that readers don’t have to read a sentence twice. Sentences should read clearly, and paragraphs or chapters should flow easily. For example, CMOS provides examples and possible solutions for clarifying sentences with danglers.
To repair your car properly, it must be sent to a mechanic.
You can probably guess who needs to bring the car to the mechanic, but this sentence could potentially be misread: It implies “you” as the subject (“To repair your car properly”), but doesn’t state that outright. To fix a dangler, you usually need to add a subject. (If this sentence were written with a dangler: To fix a dangler, it needs a subject. See what I’m getting at here?)
To repair your car properly, you must bring it to a mechanic.
Sometimes sentence constructions that sound natural can be more confusing when they’re written down, and we don’t have all the verbal cues to give us the context that we need.
With each new edition, CMOS updates ways to cite new resources (URLs, blogs, etc.) and clarifies topics that might have been disputed in earlier editions or that have evolved since earlier editions.
For example, CMOS explains all the things to consider in formatting long quotations, tips for proofreading PDFs, and guidelines for formatting the titles of video games.
Editors shouldn’t stick to overly formal rules (especially if the text is intended for a more informal audience) or to outdated conventions; either could make a text less readable. For example, people tend to think that ending a sentence with a preposition is unacceptable. This is actually an outdated, never-truly-accurate rule that just won’t seem die out. (See what I did there?) Forcing sentences not to end in a preposition can cause more awkwardness.
Style and formatting are meant to be invisible. Readers shouldn’t be tripped up by irregular spacing between sentences or lines of text, or be confused by the use of punctuation or italics. The Chicago Manual of Style guides editors (and writers) in formatting language, text, paragraphs, quotations, and much more so that readers don’t bat an eye at a misplaced comma.
Although maintaining rules and conformity in language is valuable (and is often seen as the main chunk of an editor’s job), allowing for flexibility and creativity within the language is equally important.
Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary
Merriam-Webster (American English) and the Oxford English Dictionary (British English) are dictionaries, which are great resources for checking spelling and ensuring that words are used correctly. These dictionaries stay on top of how language develops in daily discourse and how words are being used by speakers around the world. This is a huge job, since language evolves rapidly, especially in the face of globalization and the internet. (This bottom-up research of how language is used is called descriptive grammar; again, I’ll save this topic for another blog post.)
Generally, readers should be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary and understand the writer’s meaning from the definition. I’ll often look up the definitions of words used in my clients’ writing to ensure that their writing reads clearly and that the word is being used correctly. Even better, readers should be able to understand unfamiliar words from context, which brings us back to style and CMOS.
Certain words can have different associations than authors might expect, which can be a particular issue for non-native writers. It always helps to look words up in the dictionary to check the definitions and potential misinterpretations of questionable words.
A significant portion of editing is knowing how to research, when research is necessary, what to look for, and where to look to solve potential issues in a text. It’s unfortunately impossible to memorize each new word in the dictionary and every style convention. (Don’t get me started on CMOS’s standards for when to capitalize “queen.”) Editors rely on resources to maintain standards and ensure clarity and readability.
Because we use language on a daily basis, and because it is used to describe all of our ever-changing experiences in this ever-changing world, language evolves very quickly. Recently, for example, Merriam-Webster had to add entries concerning COVID-19, and The Chicago Manual of Style had to respond to inquiries about how the virus should the stylized (generally, COVID-19 in American English and Covid-19 in British English).
The continuous development of language means that editors have to walk the line between allowing for flexibility and creativity, staying up-to-date on how the language is evolving and being used by speakers around the world, and maintaining standards and conforming to convention. Resources such as The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, and the Oxford English Dictionary help us to do just that.