Monday July 26th, 2010

A Deep Devotion to Standards

manualofstyleMary E. Laur, an editor at the University of Chicago Press and part of the team that puts together new editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, writes about the reactions she gets from readers:

More often than not, people who hear that I work on the Manual—even those from outside the worlds of academia and publishing—instantly recognize the title, a rare treat for an editor in scholarly publishing. Sometimes they tell me stories of college days spent wrestling with proper footnote format or of interoffice battles over comma use, both of which likely involved recourse to the Manual. Inevitably, they ask me questions. Their curiosity increasingly centers on the broad issues that preoccupy those of us on the revision team, such as how changes wrought by technology affect everything from editing processes to citation style. But the question I still field most frequently concerns a matter of much smaller scale:

After a period or other sentence-ending punctuation mark, should I leave one space or two?

The Manual’s answer to this question is simple enough—one—but I have learned from experience that everyone who asks it wants me to say two. Often I suspect they know my answer in advance and hope to pick a fight with me. [. . .]

Although I still puzzle over the widespread attachment to this particular convention, I have gradually come to see it as a manifestation of the same force that underlies the long-term success of the Manual: a deep devotion to standards in the realm of the written word. [. . .] For all the hand-wringing about our imminent decline into a text-messaging, “LOL” culture devoid of standards, I see evidence every day that people still care about getting the details of their writing right.

This is heartening, given that I’m a hand-wringer myself. In fact, more on that in the next blog post…