More than Apostrophes: A 'Subversive' Copy Editor on Chicago Style

Carol Fisher Saller's principles of copy editing might surprise anyone who's ever tussled with an editor over a piece of writing. She argues that communication and collaboration between writer and editor are key; style rules are useful guidelines, not the straps of a straitjacket; and that language's evolution isn't anything to rail against.

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A senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, Saller edits The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A. She joins Chicago Tonight to talk about the kinds of questions she fields, and how her philosophy of editing encompasses more than apostrophe placement and adjective order. 

As an editor, writer, and lover of language, Carol Fisher Saller thinks a lot about words. What’s more, she knows a lot about words and the right way to handle them, at least according to the rules of the legendary Chicago Manual of Style. But the thing that may surprise you is that Saller is more likely to tell you to go ahead and break a rule or two than she is to wag her finger and launch into a lecture.

Saller edits The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A, where she fields questions from frustrated writers trying to figure out how the style applies to their particular situation, and from people who want her to help negotiate an editorial conflict as a sort of style-focused Dear Abby. Saller’s book, The Subversive Copy Editor, aims to mitigate many of the conflicts and frustrations she gets letters about by advocating for open communication between authors and editors and a common sense approach to the application of style rules.

Submit a question to The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A or read some recent answersCheck out Carol Fisher Saller’s blog

Below, read an excerpt from the book.

The Subversive Copy Editor

Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)

Carol Fisher Saller
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London


I hear you.

As the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s monthly online Q&A feature, I’ve been handling readers’ questions about writing style since the University of Chicago Press launched the Q&A in 1997. That amounts to tens of thousands of queries from students, professors, copy editors, businesspeople, and others who struggle as they write and edit. As of this writing, the Chicago Manual of Style Online website receives more than a million “page views” per month.1 Fortunately for us, most visitors do not submit questions to the Q&A.

The Chicago Manual of Style, for the uninitiated, is one of the English-speaking world’s most revered style manuals. Although Chicago style may not have the most users, it surely has the most devoted. From its beginnings in the 1890s as a simple in-house sheet of proofreading tips for manuscript editors at the University of Chicago Press to its current online, print, and “mobile optimized” editions, it has grown into a bible for writers and editors in almost every kind of writing outside journalism (where Associated Press style and New York Times style dominate).

Written by the Manuscript Editing Department at the University of Chicago Press, the Manual of Style has advice on everything from punctuation and capitalization to mathematics and diacritics. Its chapters on the styling of notes and bibliography citations have been adopted by universities around the world. Users of CMOS include the most impossibly learned writers and editors as well as the most clueless, and for nearly twenty years the monthly Q&A has played host to them all.

Reading the questions that come through the site is a daily adventure away from editing tasks. We answer as many as we can, and I choose the best ones for the monthly posting. The range of topics can be startling. Here’s a note we received from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA:

  • Dear Chicago Manual of Style Q&A Person: What is the rule for sequencing adjectives in a series? For example, we know that numbers come before size indicators (e.g., six small apples). We also know that colors come after size indicators (e.g., six small yellow apples). The specific problem is whether to say “narrow anticyclonically dominated northwestern coast” or “anticyclonically dominated narrow northwestern coast.” (Please don’t say the correct answer is “anticyclonically dominated northwestern narrow coast”!)

And their kicker ending: “What is the rule that supports your answer?”

In contrast, another rather dreamy-sounding note read simply, “Dear CMOS, What is Chicago style? Could you give an example?” And one of my favorites: “Would rats die if they drink soda?”

Questions come from all over the world, some from readers who struggle with English. Their grammar questions go deep and are beyond our ability to respond. (“Please tell differences of at and to.”) A professor wrote from Beijing to say that he was translating the Manual into Chinese because he perceived a need for it there. (I can hardly wait to see what kinds of questions we receive once CMOS is available in Chinese.) One day this came in:

  • Hello. I wonder how I can cite the Korean Constitutional Court case. The CMOS, as far as I’ve searched, does not provide a clear tip on it although it spent many pages on the citation rule of U.S., Canadian, and European Court cases. As an illustration, how can I cite “헌법대판소, “대한민국과 일본국간의 재산 및 청구권에 대한 문제 해결과 경제협력에 관한 협정 제3조 부작위 위헌확인” 2006헌마788?

Most of the messages I read, however, are basic questions about style. Often I know the answer, but sometimes I have to look it up—or I e-mail my colleagues for a quick consensus, or I run around and ask the first two or three editors I can find. Although people outside the Press call us “style goddesses” and assume we are experts on everything in the Manual, most of the time I feel more like the pathetic little person behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. It’s only because I’m surrounded and protected by knowledgeable and generous coworkers that I can assemble the authoritative front that appears in the Q&A. When I get an esoteric question involving technical writing or linguistics, I can phone or e-mail one of the professors on campus for help. If a question is clearly outside the purview of the CMOS help site, I sometimes do an Internet search and point the reader to a more relevant site.

Read more of the introduction.


“Analytics CMOS top 50 pages, Nov. 9, 2014¬–Feb. 9, 2015,” courtesy of Google Analytics. 

After consulting a linguist, we replied: “Our consultant was somewhat hesitant to comment without a fuller context to work with, suspecting that this may be a ‘sentence-level issue and not an adjective-phrase-level issue.’ He pointed out that sequencing can vary for reasons of emphasis and that without having the context, he couldn’t discern the intended emphasis. If ‘narrow’ is the emphasis, then it should come first (followed by a comma). If ‘anticyclonically dominated’ is the emphasis, then it should come first (followed by a comma).”

Reprinted with permission from The Subversive Copyeditor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself), published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Note: This segment originally aired on June 22

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