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Who is this Mr. Chicago, and what does he have against the English language?

Is there anyone else out there who wonders what’s going on with copy-editing?  Or should I say copyediting?

I am not in any way blaming the noble souls who generously devote their time to proofreading our manuscripts (still less the presses who—we are so lucky!—employ them to do that).  They work their socks off to catch errors for us, and I can’t count the number of horrific blunders they’ve saved me from over the years.  Still, these poor people have their hands tied for them by an evil overlord: the dreaded… Chicago Manual of Style.  [Cue creepy music, rattle of chains, blood-curdling screams.]

Yes, I know there are reasons for some of the rules, even for ones I don’t personally like; there are some things, however, that I just don’t get.  So what follows is a list of strange changes I’ve been urged to make by a shadowy entity I like to think of as Mr. Chicago.  Please let me know in the comments whether you too (sorry: “whether you, too,”) have been urged to make changes that didn’t make sense to you.  Or, indeed, whether you just think I’m spoiled, over-reacting, and/or just plain crazy.

1. Mr. Chicago Hates Hyphens

What’s wrong with hyphens?  Mr. Chicago hates them, loathes them, despises them.  He hates them so much that he wouldn’t let me refer to Jesus’s original audience as “Palestine-dwellers,” but instead insisted on “Palestinians.”  (Palestinians?!  I’ll get hate mail!)  He also wants me to use “words” like nonmoral, nonillusionistic, nonmagical, noncomic, noncraft, nonformative, noncentrality, nonmythical, semimythical, counterposition, antireferential, pseudoimmortality, and selffashioning (all of which get squiggly red lines from Microsoft Word.)  I sometimes think he has a secret desire to turn English into German.  An Englishintogermanconvertingdesire.

Then again, he regularly wants me to glue the prefix onto the word, even where the resulting monster looks like it should sound different: firsthand, preemptively, preexisting, preestablished, cooperative.  (Yes, I know what the New Yorker does with those; the hörror, the hörror.)

Mr. Chicago’s final strategy is to wrench hyphenated terms apart (ill formed, finely tuned, object lesson, starting point, meaning monger, training grounds; even user of language for language-user).  Anything to avoid a hyphen, which must cost extra, or give the angels a headache, or something.  My favorite and weirdest example: where I had “modern science can itself be awe-inspiring,” Mr. Chicago asked me to put “modern science can itself inspire awe.”  Fair enough, I suppose, but not exactly the tone I was going for.

Sometimes Mr. Chicago doesn’t quite know what he wants, and tells me to talk about “pre-civil rights Americans,” and “nonmessage-based theories”: not two hyphens, not zero hyphens, but exactly one.  At other times, however, he’s so sure of himself that he’ll retroactively correct authors like Samuel Beckett for their impertinence: however Molloy may have thought they were spelled, Mr. Chicago would prefer me to write “knife rest” and “sucking stone.”  Must… save… Beckett…

2. Mr. Chicago Hates Adverbs

OK, he only hates one kind: the ordinal kind (firstly, secondly, thirdly).  I get it, it’s a style thing; maybe “firstly” is fussy, prissy, old-fashioned (sorry, I mean oldfashioned).  But when you end up with “Finally and most important,…,” isn’t there a consistency problem?  (“Why, why, why,” mocks Mr. Chicago himself in the sometimes funny, sometimes snarky FAQ; “Get yourself a dictionary and you too can stop asking why.”)

3. Mr. Chicago Hates Inversions

I suppose I can live without them, if I have to; not being Yoda, not too often use them do I.  But do I have to say “Thus a dangerous sentence is rendered harmless,” instead of my original “Thus is the dangerous sentence rendered harmless”?  And am I really not allowed to say “as, for instance, does Roquentin”?

4. Mr. Chicago Hates Commas (as Long as they’re Useful)

Commas are lovely things: among so many advantages, they help you indicate which parts of a sentence belong together.  Here’s a sentence that uses a pair of commas to bracket off a little micro-thought: “Formative fictions do their work gradually, sometimes indeed in imperceptible increments, and over a multitude of phases.”  Mr. Chicago wanted me to remove the second comma—a change that actually alters the meaning of the sentence.  Mais pourquoi, M. Chicago?

Commas are also fun for giving the reader a little breather, showing him or her that you’re about to move to a slightly different aspect of the point under discussion.  But Mr. Chicago just won’t stand for commas before “and” or “but.”  Again, I know it’s the rule, but nonetheless, Vampire Weekend’s classic song plays in my head on a loop when I see this kind of thing.

5. Mr. Chicago Loves Commas (as Long as they’re Useless)

No, Mr. Chicago won’t let us say “consider for example the prologue to Shakespeares Henry V,” or “thus for instance I may acknowledge,” or “fiction too is a requirement.”  Instead he insists on commas around “for example” and “for instance” and “too,” and also after “namely” and “now.”  In fact, Mr. Chicago would not have allowed my first sentence in this paragraph; he would have insisted on a comma after “say.”  But all these commas slow things down.  And I’m, just, not, sure, this, is, such, a, great, thing.

6. Mr. Chicago is Being a Little Weird about his Modifiers

I see why modifiers should go with what they modify.  But when “she is only talking about X” comes back as “she is talking about only X,” something has gone horribly wrong.  And when “nor can David Lewis quite seem to make up his mind” comes back as “nor can David Lewis seem to quite make up his mind”—bonus split infinitive!—it’s enough to drive one to drink.  (Mr. Chicago, this round’s on you.)

There’s so much more to talk about, but I’ll leave it there… making sure, however, to put that comma before the “but.”  And to put “but” in scare-quotes, instead of italicizing it.  And to hyphenate “scare-quotes.”  Mr. Chicago, come and get me.


Joshua Landy's picture
Joshua Landy is the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where he co-directs the Initiative in Philosophy and Literature. His books include Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (Oxford, 2004), How to Do Things With Fictions (Oxford, 2012), and (as coeditor) The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford, 2009).