February 02, 2005

The Chicago Manual of Style --- and grammar

In the 1890s a proofreader working for the University of Chicago Press prepared a single sheet of guidance on typographic fundamentals and house style. It was augmented over time, and grew into a full style manual. The latest version was published in 2003 as the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. From the first sheet with printing on it to the last it has xviii + 958 = 976 pages, an increase in bulk of almost three orders of magnitude from that original information sheet. I finally ordered the 15th edition at the LSA book exhibit in January, when I saw that it included a new 93-page chapter on ‘Grammar and Usage’. My copy just arrived. Unfortunately, I now see, the new chapter does not represent an improvement.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is an unparalleled resource for those engaged in publishing, particularly of academic material. But the Press decided to farm out the topic of grammar and usage, and the writer they selected was Bryan A. Garner, a former associate editor of the Texas Law Review who now teaches at Southern Methodist University School of Law and has written several popular books on usage and style. His chapter is unfortunately full of repetitions of stupidities of the past tradition in English grammar — more of them than you could shake a stick at.

Presenting a representative sample would take a long time. Suffice it to say that on on page 177 he appears to claim that progressive clauses are always active (making clauses like Our premises are being renovated impossible); on page 179 he states that English verbs have seven inflected forms, including a present subjunctive, a past subjunctive, and an imperative (utter nonsense); on page 187 he reveals that (although he agrees, like every other grammarian, that the misnamed "split infinitive" is grammatical) he thinks that the adverb is "splitting the verb" in this construction (it isn't; it's between two separate words); on page 188 he describes word sequences like with reference to as "phrasal prepositions" (they aren't); and so it goes on and on. (I'm not asking you to just accept my word that these are analytical mistakes. Full argumentation on these points, and alternative analyses that make sense, can be found in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, a work that was available in published form a full year before the Preface was added to the 15th edition of CMS. A few days of revision would have sufficed to remove the blunders from Garner's chapter.)

When the University of Chicago Press started on the revisions that led to CMS 15, they could have lifted the phone and made an on-campus call to the late, great James McCawley, a professor in the Department of Linguistics there throughout his long career, and an author of many books with the Press. They could have asked him for advice. They did not, clearly. McCawley knew the field of English syntax as well as anyone alive, and would perhaps have offered to do the chapter himself, or to read and critique the chapter when it was submitted, or to advise them on who might be chosen to do write it. But once again, people who had ample opportunity to get expert help in dealing with a quintessentially linguistic question of great importance made their decisions without (it seems) consulting anyone in the one field focused on matters linguistic. (I say "once again" because I'm thinking of Mark's recent masterful critique of the College Board and its ignorant policies in designing putative tests of grammar knowledge.) They commissioned a tired rehash of traditional grammar repeating centuries-old errors of analysis instead of trying to obtain a more up-to-date presentation. A real lost opportunity that has lessened the authority of a wonderful reference book, one that on topics from punctuation to citation to indexing to editing can really be trusted. Just avert your eyes from the grammar chapter; while not completely without merit (it moves on from Strunk and White), it just isn't trustworthy in the way the rest of the book is.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 2, 2005 12:40 PM