The Chicago Manual's bad grammar.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 6 2003 10:32 AM

Fatal Agreement

The new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style wrestles with grammar.

Book cover

The back cover of the 14th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style—the 1993 version of the reference book long revered as the one-stop go-to guide for writers, editors, copy editors, publishers, and anyone else in typographical travail—listed five improved features of the then-new edition. The list, though, was vividly ungrammatical. Its final item ("Incorporates recent changes in style, usage, and in computer technology") left a lone noun stuck between two prepositional phrases, and thus violated the vital, mind-toning principle of parallelism, which holds that items in a series should be phrased in equivalent form. Maybe the blunder should have come as no surprise. For even though the Manual, brought out by the University of Chicago Press, had bulked up from edition to edition (the first of which appeared in 1906) and, before long, was weighing in on almost every book-production topic from formatting title pages to indexing, it never got around to talking about grammar. The omission always seemed irresponsible, even weird—especially in a guidebook that had become something of a cultural institution. One might as well imagine an auto-repair manual that leaves out any reference to the engine.

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But now comes the 15th edition.Still decked out in the familiar, tomato-orange wrapping, and spiffed up inside with two tones of ink and an antic sans-serif font for the examples, the Manual has been launched into the Internet Age. It wants to be as relevant to mainstream publishers of books and magazines, both on- and offline, as it has always been to academic presses. The nine selling points listed on the back cover have been phrased, thank goodness, in tidily parallel form. And most important, the Manual has at last given us a chapter on grammar and usage. At 93 pages, the chapter is by far the longest in the book.

There may have never been such urgent need for an authoritative and compendious treatment of the subject. Even our better magazines and our books from the better publishing houses have become an ungrammatical shambles. TheNew Yorker, once practically infallible, no longer seems to require that verbs agree in number with their subjects. Witness this sentence from a "Talk of the Town" essay (co-written by David Remnick and Hendrik Hertzberg) marking the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks:

In the hundred and forty years since Antietam, the technologies of depiction have advanced to the point where our experience of a comparable horror—the more than three thousand murders that took place at the southern tip of Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania on the morning of September 11, 2001—are infinitely, and inescapably, more immediate.

Experience … are?

Those of us who fall to pieces at the sight of such a sentence run the risk of being diagnosed as "anal" or urged to get a life. But maybe all of us—writers, editors, and readers alike—could use a little help. We need some rules. Not the arbitrary decrees of English professors or the capricious formulations of cranks, but a set of useful precepts induced from the best-written, best-edited sentences of our time—sentences whose logic, symmetry, balance, and grace are instructive and civilizing. How wise of the Manual's editors, then, to have recruited Bryan A. Garner to write the new chapter. Neither a fusspot nor an anything-goes kind of guy, Garner is the author of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, an extraordinarily wide-ranging expedition over the rocky terrain of contemporary grammar, syntax, and phrasing. It is hard to imagine anyone better qualified to set us straight on how a sentence ought to be put together.

But Garner, who dispensed practical, shirt-sleeved advice in his Dictionary, has written an almost perversely unhelpful chapter. It's less a troubleshooter's guide to malfunctioning sentences than a course outline of traditional grammar, systematically discussing the properties and peculiarities of the eight parts of speech. (The chapter would make a kick-ass appendix, but a handbook it ain't.) Garner labors at length on matters any able-witted reader can be expected either to know already or to learn from a dictionary entry—how nouns form their plurals, how verbs are inflected to indicate tense. And he is generous to a fault with fun-facty arcana (ought, for example, "has no infinitive form or present or past participle") unlikely to prove useful even in an actuarially optimal lifetime spent with blue pencil in hand. The result? The predictable little catastrophes that wreak havoc on sentences—stumbles in subject-verb agreement, bungled comparisons, defective predication, mispositioned modifiers, bollixed parallelism—either get short shrift or are never given the time of day. If Garner does take one of them up, his rules are likely to get immured in thick blocks of text whose headings aren't reliably descriptive of the full range of the paragraphs' contents. And don't expect much help from the Manual's index. Seventy-six pages long, the index has no room for familiar, signpost terms like "subject-verb agreement" or "agreement, subject-verb" or "subject, agreement of verb with" or "verb, agreement of subject with."

The shortcomings in scope and organization aren't the only disappointments. The chapter could have used another all-nighter or two of owl-eyed copy-editing. Nobody seems to have decided whether the first words of the hundreds of curly-bracketed sentence-length examples should be capitalized or not—and if distracted readers start searching for a pattern to the upper- and lowercasing, they won't find one. (Not that the other chapters are free from slapdashery; in a sample sentence in the chapter on punctuation, the word portrait sports an odd but, at second glance, rather swankish apostrophe between the first two letters.) And some of the examples baffle. The pronoun-shy sentence "red, white, and blue is the color scheme" is offered in illustration of a rule of pronoun usage. It's unaccountable, too, that Garner's occasional pronouncements on punctuation, as well as his own punctuational manner, now and then conflict with practice set forth as standard elsewhere in the Manual. (Surely the least we can expect of a book assailing error and inconsistency is that its chapters put up a united front.) Worse, Garner doesn't always heed his own counsel. One paragraph advises us that "with a series of coordinate nouns, an article should appear before each noun." Yet the chapter is crammed with sentences like "That refers to a person, animal, or thing. … " No biggie? Well, the series-inclusive a can hardly be carried forward to a noun like animal, which begins with a vowel.

So where does the new chapter leave us? Rather than vaporing over whether this is the chapter our semiliterate age needs or the one it deserves, we can rush back into the waiting arms of Garner's Dictionary or give another whirl to the Manual's longtime rival, Words Into Type. The latter may not have been revised since 1974, its layout may put us in mind of a souvenir program from some small town's sesquicentennial, and its explanations of grammatical laws may be a little cramped and crabbed (they have the virtue, though, of at least being there), but its wonderfully useful list of which prepositions acceptably and idiomatically hook up with which nouns, verbs, and adjectives—643 entries in all—beats the hell out of the Manual's list, with a mere 102. And better still, Words Into Type retails for only $39.95. The Manual will set you back $55.

Gary Lutz is the author of the short-story collections Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive.