Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, and Style Sheets

All part of the Hallard Press proofreading process. But what about Grammarly?

“Editing” is a nebulous term authors keep hearing and that often means whatever you want it to mean. Depending on whom you consult, the definitions vary considerably.

Authors also keep hearing about the critical nature of the editing process. “Behind every great writer is an incredible editor.” While editors (of the line, copy and content varieties) suggest rewrites and revisions, proofreaders follow up to check grammar, punctuation, and spelling. At Hallard Press we call this “GPS.”

In our lexicon, editors may also be proofreaders, but proofreaders are seldom editors.

Our proofreaders use three basic tools: the Chicago Manual of Style, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and the unique Style Sheet for the book.

Style Manuals

There are numerous style manuals—Associated Press, New York Times, American Psychological Association, and Modern Language Association, to name just a few. Each serves as “standard” for a distinct group of writers/readers so that clarity and consistency of expression are foremost.

For fiction and nonfiction publishers, and many academic journals, the Chicago Manual of Style is preferred. The first edition of CMoS was published in 1906 and it has been revised about every seven years. In addition, there are regular updates throughout the year. It is now in its 17th edition.

Published by the University of Chicago Press, The print edition runs some 1,100 pages and the indexing is arcane, in the opinion of many users, so the online version (with it’s handy search box) has been a blessing to many proofreaders.

It defines a style. Mostly.

For example, using the CMoS style, when “o’clock” is used, the time of day is always spelled out. (Our day begins at five o’clock in the morning.). But when exact times are emphasized, they call for numerals with “a.m.” or ‘p.m.” (The first train leaves at 5:22 a.m. and the last at 11:00 p.m.)

However, CMoS also may leave the proofreader in a quandary, necessitating that they make a choice. The “a.m.” and the “p.m.” it notes, sometimes appear in small capitals, with or without periods. Oh my! Outside of the hard and fast rules, CMoS urges the user to “be consistent.” That’s where the style sheet comes in.

Unfortunately for authors, CMoS online is available only by paid subscription which is in the $65 range.

Style Sheet

A proofreader’s style sheet is a document, generated during the proofing process, listing all of the spelling and style choices that may appear throughout the book or article. Are those “a.m.’s” lower case with or without periods, small caps, or what? Using the style sheet helps ensure the consistency throughout.

It also helps ensure uniformity when more than one proofreader or editor may be working on the same document. The style sheet usually travels with the manuscript as a separate document.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

There are several acceptable dictionaries for various uses. Publishers of fiction and nonfiction have settled on the Merriam-Webster as their choice or standard. Let’s look up “make up” in M-W. First, there’s “makeup,” the noun that you put on your face as a cosmetic. Then there’s “make up” the verb that means to compose or assemble. According to M-W, there is no “make-up” of the hyphenated variety that some writers use.

Compound words are difficult. “Tree trunk” isn’t in the M-W, so the proofreader must make a decision, two words, hyphenated or one word, and then note it on the style sheet for future reference. “Tight-lipped” is hyphenated, while “loose cannon” is two words. “Tight spot” isn’t in the dictionary, so it’s back to the proofreader making a choice and entering it on the style sheet.

Fortunately for authors, there is a free version of Merriam-Webster online.

Grammarly and other proofreading apps

In our experience, nothing replaces the brain of an experienced human proofreader.

Grammarly, Spellcheck, Hemmingway and others are a good start, but none of the will replace the human proofreader. Some of their suggestions don’t consider context. Others can interfere with your individual writing style. (For example, in fiction, I often write something like: “She came and went and spoke and did her thing.”

No Oxford commas; no commas at all—which any good proofing app might immediately flag. A good human proofreader has great respect for the author’s ‘voice’ and works to ensure consistency, rather than a slavishly following a rule.

There are stories of proofreaders who read the book backwards looking for errors. That way, so they reason, they don’t get caught up in the story and lose focus. Many years ago, I worked at a newspaper where the chief proofreader did just that. Incredibly we had extremely few typos, but the proofreader had no idea what the articles were about.

The Bottom Line

Grammar, punctuation and spelling are critical to your book or article. As is the author’s voice. In the above there are instances of both being considered. Some ‘sentences’ are not actual sentences. I start sentences with ‘And.’ That’s my voice. The rest? Well hopefully, there’s consistency. And our proofreader understands that.