Category Archives: Style manuals

“slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language”

If you are confused about the difference between style and grammar, you should read this testy but important post from The Economist’s Johnson blog, pointing out a problem with Paul Farhi’s Washington Post profile of David Minthorn, one of the editors of the AP Stylebook. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing:

“E-MAIL” or “e-mail”? “Bed and breakfast” or “bed-and-breakfast”?… “Smart phone” or “smartphone”? “Mic” or “mike”?

My question isn’t which of these readers prefer, but a more abstract one: which of these are questions of grammar?

The Washington Post profiles the Associated Press’s “grammar and style expert” David Minthorn today. In raising all these questions (and Mr Minthorn’s answers) and in describing Mr Minthorn as a kind of linguistic Solomon, the Post’s Paul Farhi never once makes a crucial point: none of these questions has a correct answer at all, because they are not questions of grammar. They are all style…

Whether to hyphenate “e-mail” or not is one of the most trivial and boring things I can possibly imagine having a debate about, but the AP’s recent move to “email” caused an almighty furore….

It’s good to be consistent, and that’s why the AP and The Economist (and probably the Washington Post) have something called a style. But this is just a series of subjective, almost capricious rulings so that we don’t see “e-mail” and soon thereafter, “email”, a “Ghaddafi” here and a “Qaddhafi” there. As the name suggests, style is a matter of taste…. Who cares, for goodness’s sake? Just pick one and stay with it.

Grammar, on the other hand, really does render “right” and “wrong” judgments…. This isn’t to say there aren’t open or controversial questions of grammar. And there are meta-level questions about the sources of authority in questions of grammar, the old prescriptive versus descriptive argument…. Whatever your language or dialect, it has rules….

Many people worship and slavishly follow the AP’s style. They shouldn’t, because the whole idea of slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language…

It’s also important to remember that there are different style guides for different types of writing, and each style is influenced by practical considerations unique to their publications. For example, Chicago style (used by most of the publishing world) uses the serial comma for clarity, while AP style (used by most newspapers and journalists) doesn’t use the serial comma in order to save column space. Here are two additional examples from Farhi’s article. The AP decision to drop the hyphen from “e-mail” was made because “the extra character was unnecessary because it slowed writers down, if only by a fraction of a second.” And though Chicago italicizes the titles of books and periodicals, Minthorn notes that “AP puts quotes around titles (exceptions: the Bible and standard reference works, which get neither) and it never uses italics. This is for practical reasons more than anything. AP doesn’t transmit copy with embedded italics because not all computer systems can send or receive them….”

So you should make sure the style you are using is appropriate to the specific type of writing or publication, understand the reasons behind the style decisions you make, and apply your style choices consistently. For more about style manuals, see my previous posts on the subject. For more examples of Chicago and AP style differences, see the AP vs. Chicago blog.

No, Oxford hasn’t abandoned the Oxford comma

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love the Oxford comma (also known as the serial or series comma). I wrote in a post over two years ago:

If only we could convince the Times (and other newspapers) to use the serial comma (also known as the series comma or the Oxford comma). I’m a big fan of the serial comma, and the Chicago Manual of Style now “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…, since it prevents ambiguity.”  Here’s an example from the Times that shows what can happen without the serial comma: “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Perhaps the most famous example of why the serial comma should be used is this apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (For the origins of these two examples, see this 2006 Language Log post and this 2003 Language Hat post.)

This morning a GalleyCat post reported that the use of the Oxford comma is now discouraged by the University of Oxford (in their online Writing and Style Guide). This has, of course, ignited the Twittersphere with strong reactions, pro and con.

However, it turns out that the story isn’t really true.  Galleycat has just added an update to their blog post:

Reader Michael Williams adds this clarification: “That’s the University of Oxford PR department style guide. Oxford University Press is a commercially and editorially autonomous organization.”

So, much ado about nothing. (Yet another reminder not to believe everything you read on the Internet.) But even if it were true, that would certainly not convince me to give up the Oxford comma.

Update, 6/30/11: 

Oxford Dictionaries tweeted this morning:

The Oxford comma is alive and well at Oxford University Press: http://oxford.ly/mnx8XK

This AP article explains:

But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.

Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”

The only explicit permission to dispense with the Oxford comma — apparently the cause of the alarm — was in a guide for university staff on writing press releases and internal communications. “It’s not new, it’s been online for several years already,” said Maria Coyle in the university press office.

Yet the report caused a Twitterstorm….

Even the National Security Agency has a style manual

I’ve previously blogged about a number of different style manuals, but this is a rather unusual one. BoingBoing has published online the style manual of the National Security Agency, received through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in April 2010.

The NSA has a style guide—a Strunk and White for spooks—which we’re delighted to publish here for the first time.

Most of the document is an alphabetized compendium of ambiguous, easily-misused or otherwise troublesome words. As style guides go, it’s standard fare: more interesting than the grammar tips are clarifications on obscure intelligence terms and the usage examples, which often lean toward military operations, geopolitics, killings and diplomacy.

Go to the BoingBoing post to read the embedded document or download it as a PDF or TXT file.

Below I’ve copied an assortment of entries that caught my eye as I browsed:

about, approximately …
About is preferred in general and informal contexts. Approximately is common in technical and reference works. Do not use either term (or estimated or nearly) if precise figures are given. POOR: During the attack, about 304 were killed. GOOD: During the attack, 304 were killed. If you are not sure of the number, round it off: During the attack, about 300 were killed.

aircraft …
Do not abbreviate the generic types of aircraft in serialized reports. Use fighter, not “fir”; bomber, not “bmbr”. In keeping with modern journalistic style, capitalize only the first letter of aircraft nicknames: F-15 (Eagle).

bomb …
Do not use the terms A-bomb or H-bomb. Spell out the words. Do not capitalize atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, etc.

bureaucratese …
Bureaucratese is a pejorative, non-technical term for the language style commonly associated with bureaucrats.

Avoid bureaucratic style whenever possible. It is the mark of the timid writer. What is bureaucratic style? Robert Claiborne identified the four main principles of bureaucratic style as:
• never use a short word where a long one will do;
• never use one word where you can use three;
• use abstract and general terms rather than concrete and specific ones; and
• avoid flat statements by hedging and qualifying.

Bureaucratese speaks in passive voice and buzzwords, and it carefully avoids assigning responsibility for any action or decision. It will bore or put to sleep most readers. Don’t use it unless you have no other way to communicate.

casualties …
In military terms, casualties means the total number of dead, wounded, missing, and captured. Do not use casualties when referring to only one of these categories.

communism, communist. ..
Use lowercase for the word communism.

Capitalize communist when referring to the political party or to individuals who are members of it: Communist Party. He is a Communist.

Use lowercase for communist in all other situations: a communist government; he has communist leanings.

email…
Shortened term for electronic mail. The spelling without the hyphen is becoming more common and is preferred, but the alternative form e-mail is also correct.

foreign phrases and words …
Keep the use of foreign words and phrases to a minimum. Few of our readers are linguists.

Where the capability exists…, italicize any foreign word or phrase that may not be known to the average reader. Commonly recognized terms that need not be italicized include, but are not limited to:
• ad hoc
• attache
• blitzkrieg
• bona fide
• charge d’affaires
• communique
• coup d’etat
• de facto
• demarche
• detente
• fait accompli
• junta
• laissez faire
• per se
• persona non grata
• rapprochement
• versus
• vis-a-vis

FOXTROT …
Phonetic spelling of the letter “f.”

gender …
When talking about a specific person, use a term appropriate to that person: chairman Jones, chairwoman Doe.

Use neutral terms when talking about mixed groups or persons whose identity has not been established: members of the Assembly, rather than Assemblymen; a member of Congress rather than a Congressman.

Do not change an official title to a neutral term. If the official title is “Party Chairman,” use that term; don’t say “Party Chairperson.”

For pronouns, the problem is different. Modern English does not have gender-neutral pronouns for people.

When a pronoun must be used and the gender of its antecedent is not known or can refer to persons of either sex, there are four three choices the writer can make, all of which are acceptable in SIGINT serialized reports.

1. Use the plural pronoun: Everyone hopes they will win the contest.
2. Place the whole sentence in the plural: All people hope they will win the contest.
3. Rewrite the sentence and eliminate the personal pronoun: Everyone hopes to win the contest.

government…
Government, as a political term, refers to an established system of political administration. In American usage, it takes a singular verb; in British usage, it takes a plural verb.

guerrilla …
Preferred spelling. The alternate spelling is guerilla.

jihad …
Preferred transliteration of the Arabic word for “holy war.”

missile …
A missile is an unmanned, self-propelled weapon whose flight path or trajectory can be controlled. A missile may be aerodynamic or ballistic. Distinguish it from a “rocket, which is a self-propelled vehicle whose trajectory or flight path cannot be controlled.

reconnaissance…
Two n’s and s’s. Avoid abbreviating it as “Recon” except as part of a unit designator in a listing or in a narrative report where it occurs repeatedly. Also avoid the abbreviation “recce,” which is chiefly British. The verb form of reconnaissance is reconnoiter.

revolt, revolution …
A revolt is widespread opposition to current standards. Politically, it refers to an armed attempt to change authority.

A revolution is a radical alteration in a system or in social conditions. In the political sense, it is the overthrow by open and organized armed force of an established government and its replacement by another.

security control markings …
Words or phrases added to restrict the dissemination of a serialized report. At this time there are five such markings:
• ORCON – Dissemination and Extraction of Information Controlled by Originator
• NOFORN – Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals
• PROPIN- Proprietary Information Involved
• REL – Releasable to (name of the countries)
• EYES ONLY – (used only on electrical reports in place of REL due to existing software limitations)

title after a name …
Capitalize only national-level titles (Cabinet-level or above) that appear after a name: Jane Doe, Minister of Defense. Lowercase and set off with commas most other titles that appear after a name: John Doe, the deputy assistant minister of culture, arrived yesterday.

title before a name …
Capitalize a formal title appearing before a name: President Jane Doe, Assistant Secretary John Jones. Do not capitalize a title that serves primarily as an occupational designator: astronaut John Doe…. See the entries for courtesy tjtles, military rank, and religious titles.

totalitarian …
Avoid. See the entry for authoritarian.

The document also contains an appendix on abbreviations and acroynyms.

So, what’s your favorite entry?

NY Times ignores AP, clings to “e-mail” and “Web site”

As you know, Bob, most newspapers follow the AP Stylebook, but the New York Times has its own famously idiosyncratic style. Though the AP dropped the hyphen from “e-mail” a few days ago, the Times is keeping the hyphen, according to a blog post by Phillip B. Corbett (associate managing editor for standards) describing some recent revisions to their in-house stylebook. Here’s an excerpt:

We no longer have to write about people sending “an e-mail message” — we can call it “an e-mail.” The term is also acceptable as a verb. (For now, at least, we are keeping the hyphen for this and similar coinages like e-commerce and e-reader.)

Some of the changes simply acknowledge the cultural ubiquity of digital technology. Most of our articles followed popular usage long ago in dropping the “World Wide” from “World Wide Web.” Now the stylebook has caught up: just call it “the Web” outside historical references. Keep in mind that it is just part of “the Internet.”

For now, we’ll continue to capitalize Web and Internet, and we’ll keep “Web site” as two words. But “webcam” is one word, lowercase….

While writers are still urged to avoid some of the newer fad words and jargon, the ubiquitous “app” is now acceptable in all references to software applications, particularly for mobile….

As with PDF, we are no longer requiring points in USB or URL. (The same goes for fanciful texting abbreviations, should you feel the need to ROTFL. Sparingly, please.) We have given up on the insistence that “firewall” always be two words….

Note that the Times alone continues to use “Web site,” though common usage and all of the most recent editions of major stylebooks (including AP, Chicago, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple) use “website.”

The AP Stylebook is dropping the hyphen from “e-mail”

Last August I compared how a number of new style manuals treated tech words. In 2010, both the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) and the AP Stylebook Online finally changed their style recommendations from “Web site” to “website,” reflecting what has long been common usage.  But there was disagreement over other terms. Most notably, Chicago and AP still used “e-mail,” but the tech/digital style manuals (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) all dropped the hyphen (“email”)

Today Jim Romenesko reported that the AP Stylebook editors just announced a series of new changes— including the dropping of the hyphen from “e-mail”–  at the American Copy Editors Society Conference. Here’s an excerpt from the ACES 2011 post:

David Minthorn and Darrell Christian, editors of the AP Stylebook, brought with them to ACES 2011 in Phoenix some of the changes that will be effective as of 3 a.m. EDT Saturday, March 19.

They are:

• email, instead of e-mail. (Other “e” terms, such as e-book and e-commerce, retain the hyphen,)

• Kolkata, India, instead of Calcutta, India. To follow local style.

• cellphone, smartphone become one word. (No longer cell phone and smart phone.)

• handheld, n., hand-held, adj.

Most news organizations follow AP style, but book publishers usually follow Chicago style, so the hyphen isn’t dead yet. (See my April 2010 post for more on “e-mail” vs. “email” and Bryan Garner’s “Language Change Index.”)

A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words

Though two of the most influential style manuals (Chicago and AP) recently changed from “Web site” to  “website,” they still differ in their treatment of other tech words, which won’t be a surprise to writers and editors who work with different styles.

Below I’ve compared the current recommendations for tech words from new editions of four style and usage guides.

Chicago is the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (published August 2010), the authoritative style guide used by most of the publishing world.

AP is the AP Stylebook Online (updated April 2010), the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists. (The New York Times uses its own idiosyncratic style.)

Yahoo! is the Yahoo! Style Guide (published July 2010), a new style guide for digital content.

Garner is the 3rd edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (published August 2009), an excellent book that tracks recent changes in usage and language.

The results:

  • All four agree on “website,” “World Wide Web,” and “the Internet.”
  • All except Chicago capitalize “the Web.”
  • Chicago, AP, and Garner use the hyphenated “e-mail,” but Yahoo! uses “email.”
  • Yahoo! and Garner use “webpage,” Chicago uses “web page,” and AP uses “Web page.”

It may look like consensus has finally been reached on “website,” but this is not the end of “Web site,” as it is still the standard in older works like the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (which hasn’t been updated since the 2004 3rd edition) and both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, published in 2003) and Merriam-Webster Online. (By the way, the December 2009 Apple Publications Style Guide uses “website,” “webpage,” and “email” without the hyphen.)

What does this mean for you? If you are using an older style manual, you should probably get a more current one. Which style manual you use will depend on the kind of writing, editing, or publishing you do. Chicago will likely be your primary style manual unless you work with specialized fields or content, such as technical writing, journalism, academic writing, scientific writing, etc. If you are working for a publisher or company, use the style manual and/or “house style” they specify. (Some use a hybrid, based primarily on a particular style manual but customized for internal preferences.) If you are writing for yourself, you can do what you want, but try to be both consistent and open to change. (Though Chicago is my default style manual, I’ve been using “website” and “the web” since I began this blog two years ago. Though I’m tempted to eliminate the hyphen from “e-mail,” I’m not quite ready to do so.)

So, in light of all this, are you going to make any changes to your style or try to convince your employer to modify the house style?

For more on style manuals, see my previous posts.

Update, 8/11/10: In the comments, Delf notes that though Microsoft’s published style manual hasn’t been updated since 2004, their style guide for internal use continues to be updated, and the latest version (June 30, 2010) specifies the following:

website
World Wide Web
the Internet
the web
email
webpage

Note that all of the tech/digital style guides (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) have dropped the hyphen from “email,” which I don’t think we’ll see adopted quickly by Chicago and AP.

Update 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

“The new phone book’s here!”

My print copy of the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style just arrived from Amazon.com, though the official publication date is not until the end of August.

Here’s an interesting change: the 16th edition of the CMOS, like the new edition of the AP Stylebook, now embraces “website” (instead of the more formal “Web site”) as well as “the web” and “web page” (see 7.76 and 7.85). For more on “Web site” vs. “website,” see my earlier post on the subject.

For a list of some of the other changes in the 16th edition, see The Subversive Copy Editor’s “16th edition Sneak Peeks and Retired Rules.”

If you prefer your reference works in digital form, see The Chicago Manual of Style Online for online subscription options.

By the way, in the package with the CMOS was another new style manual, The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World. When I have more time, it will be interesting to explore and compare the two works.

The Subversive Copy Editor and a new edition of Chicago Manual of Style

Thanks to this CopyEditing post, I just learned that Carol Saller, the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s Online Q&A and the author of the book The Subversive Copy Editor, has a new blog, the appropriately titled The Subversive Copy Editor Blog. Last year I wrote about Saller’s CMS Q&A and recommended her book in my post “I think someone needs a vacation….”

In related news, the new and revised 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style will be published in August 2010. Here’s an excerpt from the description, with information on what’s new in this edition:

While digital technologies have revolutionized the publishing world in the twenty-first century, one thing still remains true: The Chicago Manual of Style is the authoritative, trusted source that writers, editors, and publishers turn to for guidance on style and process. For the sixteenth edition, every aspect of coverage has been reconsidered to reflect how publishing professionals work today. Though processes may change, the Manual continues to offer the clear, well-considered style and usage advice it has for more than a century.

The sixteenth edition offers expanded information on producing electronic publications, including web-based content and e-books. An updated appendix on production and digital technology demystifies the process of electronic workflow and offers a primer on the use of XML markup, and a revised glossary includes a host of terms associated with electronic as well as print publishing. The Chicago system of documentation has been streamlined and adapted for a variety of online and digital sources….

The hardcover book will be priced at $65, but you can pre-order it from Amazon for $41.  There’s also an online version, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, which you can subscribe to for $35 per year (or $60 for two years). Subscribers will automatically receive the new content.

For more about the Chicago Manual of Style, see my post “The writer’s bookshelf (part 3).” You can also follow the Chicago Manual of Style on Twitter.

AP Stylebook surrenders the battle over “Web site” vs. “website”

I was very pleased to read today in this post on Poynter Online that the Associated Press Stylebook (the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists) is finally changing from Web site to website. This change now appears in the AP Stylebook Online and will be in the printed 2010 AP Stylebook.

It’s about time, as common usage long ago moved to website, a fact acknowledged by Bryan Garner in his excellent 2009 third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage:

website. One word, lowercase. But some stylesheets and dictionaries specify Web site (a clunker). When Web stands alone, it is capitalized. Cf. World Wide Web.

The New York Times, which has long had its own rather idiosyncratic style rules (see my 2009 post on the subject), uses Web site, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to do so long after everyone else has abandoned it.

Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style Online says about the issue:

Q. Which is currently accepted: Web site, web site, website, or Website?

A. A lot of people are writing “website.” A lot of people have come to prefer “website.” But formal usage still calls for “Web site,” in recognition of the initiatives of the World Wide Web Consortium (write “Web-site” as an adjective). The most elaborately formal modern American publication I can think of, the New Yorker, still writes “Web site,” but then again, they also write “E-mail,” “coördinate,” and “reëxamine”—they are very particular. We at Chicago are very particular too, and we recommend “Web site.” But our press as a whole is not in the position of publishing a single, unified publication—such as a magazine. It is easier to apply a set of standard rules and never vary from them for one publication, but rules applying to all sorts of books, articles, and other writing must be a little more flexible. Moreover, when a word gets used a lot it tends to lose any awkward edges (and what could be more awkward than a compound formed of one capitalized word and one lowercased word?). Each new book that appears on the scene presents an opportunity for an author to express a usage preference or to demonstrate a familiarity with changing usage.

But generally, I would recommend “Web site” for formal writing, but “website” for informal writing or friendly writing. Unless, of course, you prefer “Web site” even when you’re being friendly.

It’s a fact that style and usage change over time, though it often takes time to filter up to the guardians of language. One of the things I really like about the new edition of Garner is that he includes a “Language-Change Index” to “measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become.” His Index has five stages:

Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts….

Stage 5: The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).

For example, email for e-mail is in Stage 4, and he explains in detail in the entry:

e-mail; E-mail; email. The first is the prevalent form in print sources. The letter e–short for electronic–is sometimes capitalized, but the trend is to make it lowercase. The unhyphenated email is unsightly, but it might prevail in the end. In print sources, e-mail is five times as common as email. Ultimately, the hyphen may well disappear–since that is what midword hyphens tend to do–but for the time being it is more than holding its own.

Of course the reason e-mail is much more common in print sources is that the style manuals used by print publications specify that as the correct usage.

For more on style manuals, see one of my earliest posts, The writer’s bookshelf (part 3), or some of my other posts on the subject.

Update, 8/5/10: The new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style now embraces “website,” as I noted in the post I wrote after receiving my print copy.

Update, 8/6/10: See my new blog post, “A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words.”

Update, 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

I think someone needs a vacation…

Thanks to The Stranger Slog for pointing out this hilarious Q&A from The Chicago Manual of Style Online:

Q. Is there a period after an abbreviation of a country if it is terminating a sentence? “I went to U.K..”

A. Seriously, have you ever seen two periods in a row like that in print? If we told you to put two periods, would you do it? Would you set your hair on fire if CMOS said you should?

The editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s monthly Q&A is Carol Fisher Saller. I enjoyed (and recommend) her book, The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships With Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself).

See my earlier blog post, The writer’s bookshelf (part 3), for more about The Chicago Manual of Style book and website.

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with another of Saller’s classic Q&As:

Q. Oh, English-language gurus, is it ever proper to put a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence in formal writing? This author is giving me a fit with some of her overkill emphases, and now there is this sentence that has both marks at the end. My everlasting gratitude for letting me know what I should tell this person.

A. In formal writing, we allow both marks only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing. Otherwise, no.

“Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”

There’s been a lot of commentary in the blogosphere about the “Chris Anderson plagiarizing from Wikipedia” kerfuffle. (See my previous post for a recap.) There are too many apologists for Anderson and his use (or misuse) of Wikipedia, and even some criticisms have missed the forest for the trees. Let me spell it out:

  • It is simply not acceptable to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia when writing a book or doing serious research. Wikipedia is a tertiary source, and a deeply flawed one at that. If high school students aren’t allowed to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia or traditional encyclopedias, it is absurd to think that it’s acceptable for the author of a book to do so. It is not only intellectual laziness of the highest order, it ignores Wikipedia’s own warnings about its limitations and appropriate use. As I quoted in my previous post: “Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information… Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research. As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources….”
  • If you insist on using Wikipedia, you must track down the original reference sources cited and verify the information. Errors (including transcription mistakes) in the original Wikipedia entries that Anderson used are reproduced in his own writing, meaning he never looked at the original cited sources, and he apparently didn’t verify or fact-check the information with additional primary or secondary sources. [Note to Chris Anderson:  If you don’t have the time to do the research and check sources yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher or journalist to either do it for you or check your work before publication.]
  • It is ridiculous for Anderson to claim that he removed his footnotes because he was “unable to find a good citation format for web sources.” As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many authoritative citation standards which can easily be found in style manuals and websites. Even Wikipedia itself gives you nine different citation formats (including Chicago and MLA) for each entry. Anderson says his publisher insisted on a timestamp for each URL, which Anderson found “clumsy and archaic,” so he cut out the footnotes. WRONG!  And don’t even get me started on the whole “write-through” thing.
  • Given Anderson’s background and his role as editor-in-chief of Wired, I find this all rather shocking, and it makes me wonder about the editorial standards of Anderson himself, his magazine, and his book publisher (Hyperion).

Yesterday Seth Simonds, in a delightfully snarky post titled “Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism,” demonstrated (with screen shots and step-by-step instructions) what Anderson could (and should) have done to find a source listed in a Wikipedia entry. Here’s an excerpt:

Anderson took a last-minute 5th grade approach to writing. He found the Wikipedia listing for “Usury” and pasted the text into his manuscript…

5 Steps From Wikipedia To A Reliable Source…

Step 1: Find the citation link for the portion of the Wikipedia article you’d like to quote. (Don’t quote it. Not even if you’re a famous editor and you’re really busy.)

A. Click on citation link in the Wikipedia article.

B. Identify the key portions of the citation. In this case, author last name and date of publication.

Step 2: After finding the citation, launch a web search including the author name and original search term. Many bloggers would stop at the citation of Moehlman and use a “^Moehlman, 1934, page 7” attribution. As a professional editor conducting research for a print publication, I’m holding Anderson to a higher standard. Note: pasting from Wikipedia is a bad idea because you’re trusting a stranger’s transcription. Don’t be lazy…

“Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

From the Virginia Quarterly Review blog, a post by Waldo Jaquith titled “Chris Anderson’s Free Contains Apparent Plagiarism”:

In the course of reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, $26.99), for a review in an upcoming issue of VQR, we have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources. These instances were identified after a cursory investigation, after I checked by hand several dozen suspect passages in the whole of the 274-page book. This was not an exhaustive search, since I don’t have access to an electronic version of the book. Most of the passages, but not all, come from Wikipedia. Anderson is the author of the best-selling 2006 book The Long Tail and is the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The official publication date for Free is July 7.

Examples of the passages in question follow. The words and phrases that are found in both Free and the apparent original source are highlighted…

Though reproducing words or original ideas from any uncredited source is widely defined as plagiarism, using text from Wikipedia presents an even more significant problem than reproducing traditional copyrighted text. Under Wikipedia’s Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license, Anderson would be required to credit all contributors to the quoted passages, license his modifications under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, note that the original work has been modified, and provide the text of or a link to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Anderson has not done any of these things in Free.

Anderson responded personally to a request for comments about how this unattributed text came to appear in his book, providing the following remarks by e-mail:

All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources…

This all came about once we collapsed the notes into the copy. I had the original sources footnoted, but once we lost the footnotes at the 11th hour, I went through the document and redid all the attributions, in three groups:

* Long passages of direct quotes (indent, with source)

* Intellectual debts, phrases and other credit due (author credited inline, as with Michael Pollan)

* In the case of source material without an individual author to credit (as in the case of Wikipedia), do a write-through.

Obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad. As you’ll note, these are mostly on the margins of the book’s focus, mostly on historical asides, but that’s no excuse. I should have had a better process to make sure the write-through covered all the text that was not directly sourced.

I think what we’ll do is publish those notes after all, online as they should have been to begin with. That way the links are live and we don’t have to wrestle with how to freeze them in time, which is what threw me in the first place….

5:15 p.m. update: Hyperion has provided us with the following statement.

We are completely satisfied with Chris Anderson’s response. It was an unfortunate mistake, and we are working with the author to correct these errors both in the electronic edition before it posts, and in all future editions of the book.

Hyperion says that they intend to have the notes online by the time that the book is published.

Make sure you also read the comments to the post, which are fascinating, especially the smackdown between Chris Anderson and Edward Champion.

Carolyn Kellogg, in the LA Times Jacket Copy blog, comments:

As citations for Web sources have been established for some time, this seems an odd explanation from Anderson, who is no publishing novice. His previous book, “The Long Tail,” was a bestseller, and he is currently editor in chief of Wired magazine…

The lack of attribution may indeed have been a combination of mistake and lack of oversight. But as one commenter on Gawker lamented, “Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

Wikipedia is one of the resources Anderson lauds — in “The Long Tail,” he called it a phenomenon. In this one, he writes, “there is the amazing ‘gift economy’ of Wikipedia,” later explaining, “Wikipedia makes no money at all, but because an incomparable information resource is now available to all at no cost, our own ability to make money armed with more knowledge is improved.”

The whole point of Anderson’s “Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price” is to explore what he calls “the paradox of Free,” in which “people are making lots of money and charging nothing.”

Anderson’s hardcover costs $26.99. Wikipedia is still free.

And within hours, Anderson’s Wikipedia’s entry had been updated — with attribution — to reflect the charges of plagiarism. Updates to “Free” are expected to take a while. Which proves Anderson’s point — I think.

Edward Champion decided to investigate himself:

Unfortunately, I have learned that the VQR’s investigations only begin to scratch the surface. A cursory plunge into the book’s contents reveals that Anderson has not only cribbed material from Wikipedia and websites (sometimes without accreditation), but that he has a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.

By the way, recent editions of style manuals contain detailed information on how to cite websites and online sources, most notably the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. (See my post “The writer’s bookshelf (part 3)” for more information on style manuals.)

Update 1: Today Chris Anderson posted an explanation on his blog:

First, as readers of my writings know, I’m a supporter of using Wikipedia as a source (not the only one, of course, and checking the original source material whenever possible). I disagree with those who say it should never be used. But the question is how to use it.

In my drafts, I had intended to blockquote Wikipedia passages, footnoting their URL. But my publisher, like many others, was uncomfortable with the changing nature of Wikipedia, and wanted me to timestamp each URL… which struck me as clumsy and archaic… [I]n most cases I did do a writethrough of the non-quoted Wikipedia text, although clearly I didn’t go nearly far enough and too much of the original Wikipedia authors’ language remained… This was sloppy and inexcusable, but the part I feel worst about is that in our failure to find a good way to cite Wikipedia as the source we ended up not crediting it at all. That is, among other things, an injustice to the authors of the Wikipedia entry who had done such fine research in the first place, and I’d like to extend a special apology to them….

This is totally lame. Somewhere Research Cat is crying…

Update 2: My husband pointed out that every Wikipedia entry has a link called “Cite this page,” which contains permanent page links and nine different citation styles, including Chicago, MLA, etc. Here’s the citation page for the Wikipedia article on Chris Anderson. Please note what’s written at the top of the page:

IMPORTANT NOTE: Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information — citing an encyclopedia as an important reference in footnotes or bibliographies may result in censure or a failing grade. Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research.

As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources and read our disclaimers for more information.

New York Times style rules: “Consistent, Sensitive and Weird”

Today’s New York Times column by public editor Clark Hoyt discusses the Times’ idiosyncratic and sometimes controversial style and usage rules. For example, the Times does not capitalize acronyms over four letters (they only capitalize the first letter), so while the rest of the world uses NAFTA, the Times alone uses Nafta. The example cited in the column was Navy SEALs, which the Times insists on printing as Navy Seals, despite objections from readers and the Navy:

Cmdr. Greg Geisen, the spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command, said SEALs is the name of the outfit, and “we would never, ever, ever in any way, shape or form spell it capital s, small e, small a, small l.” But, he added, “if The New York Times doesn’t want to be accurate, that’s O.K. No one here is going to get irate or offended over it.”

I agree with Hoyt that the Times should change its acronym policy:

I would also make it SEAL. I think the rule on acronyms is too rigid; it leaves The Times virtually alone in calling UNESCO Unesco, UNICEF Unicef and, my personal pet peeve because I am a fan, NASCAR Nascar. Maybe people who read only The Times are used to these, but most people in the Internet age get news from many sources, and The Times stands out as weird and maybe clueless.

The original intent of the rule was to limit the number of all-caps acronyms “looking like pieces of kitty litter all over the newspaper,” said Craig Whitney, the standards editor. But he said that may be less relevant on the Web, and “it is not written in stone that we will always adhere to that rule.”

It’s good to know I’m not the only one annoyed by many of these unusual style choices:

Many Times readers do get offended and irate over style issues like this one, and the complaints often involve an accusation that the newspaper is being disrespectful. In the last few weeks, I have heard from readers who think The Times is showing disrespect every time it refers to the president as Mr. Obama, and from others incensed that the newspaper used the word midget in a news article.

Each case illustrates the challenge of maintaining a consistent style in a changing world, where some people read political motives into simple usage conventions, where words once thought acceptable become objectionable, and where other words once objectionable become part of everyday language. A newspaper has to have rules, the linguistic equivalent of driving on the right side of the road and stopping at red lights, to avoid chaos for readers.

At The Times, a lot of consideration goes into usage issues, and they are often more complicated than they seem at first blush. Why not just call Seals SEALs? Well, what about Yahoo, which wants an exclamation point after its name? What about a rock group with a name containing an obscenity?

Though some of its rules seem eccentric or charmingly old-fashioned, like calling people Mr., Ms. and Dr., The Times does change, if usually slowly.

If only we could convince the Times (and other newspapers) to use the serial comma (also known as the series comma or the Oxford comma). I’m a big fan of the serial comma, and the Chicago Manual of Style now “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…, since it prevents ambiguity.”  Here’s an example from the Times that shows what can happen without the serial comma: “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Perhaps the most famous example of why the serial comma should be used is this apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (For the origins of these two examples, see this 2006 Language Log post and this 2003 Language Hat post.)

Research and Documentation Online

Diana Hacker’s Research and Documentation Online is a website about finding, evaluating, and documenting reference sources. The site is based on one of Hacker’s handbooks for college students, Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age, but the information she provides would be useful to just about anyone who does research. I particularly like her tips for evaluating print and online sources and the annotated lists of specialized sources (databases and indexes, web resources, and reference books) for over 30 disciplines in four categories (humanities, social sciences, history, and sciences). She also includes guidelines for documenting print and online sources (Chicago, MLA, APA, and CSE styles) and a comprehensive list of style manuals for different disciplines.

The writer’s bookshelf (part 3)

This is the third in an ongoing series of posts about the references writers and editors should have on their physical or virtual bookshelf.

Style Manuals

Style manuals are all about consistency in writing, editing, and publishing. Style includes rules for when to spell out numbers, how to deal with abbreviations and acronyms, which words should be capitalized, and punctuation issues (whether to use a serial comma, when to hyphenate compound words), to list only a few examples.

Anyone who writes or edits books in the U.S. needs The Chicago Manual of Style, the 15th edition (the current edition, extensively revised in 2003). The Chicago Manual of Style calls itself “the essential reference for authors, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers in any field,” and that’s not an exaggeration. Though the main focus is on the needs of writers and editors of books and journals, the new edition was revised to assist “the increasing proportion of our users who work with magazines, newsletters, corporate reports, proposals, electronic publications, Web sites and other nonbook or nonprint documents. Computer technology and the increasing use of the Internet mark almost every chapter.” If you are still using an older edition, you should upgrade to the 15th edition, as style preferences have changed over time.

The Chicago Manual of Style includes chapters on the parts of a published work, manuscript preparation and editing, proofs, rights and permissions, grammar and usage, punctuation, spelling and compounds, names and terms, numbers, foreign languages, quotations and dialogue, illustrations and captions, tables, mathematics in type, abbreviations, documentation, and indexes. It also includes appendixes on design and production (basic procedures and key terms) and the publishing process for books and journals.  A more detailed table of contents can be found on the CMS website (www.chicagomanualofstyle.org).

The Chicago Manual of Style is available in multiple formats: hardcover book (priced at $55, but available at a discount online), CD-ROM for Windows ($60), and web subscription ($30 per year at www.chicagomanualofstyle.org). The web version is fully searchable and has extra features, such as the ability to add notes, bookmark paragraphs, and create personalized style sheets.

There are also many specialized style manuals for particular types of publications:

Publishers and companies will specify which style manual they use, and many also have in-house style guides or style sheets to reflect individual company preferences and create consistency throughout all of their written material.