A Riddle, Wrapped in an Enigma, Wrapped in a Style Book: Exploring Style Sheets

A monk in a scriptorium. Medieval manuscript o...

A monk in a scriptorium. I could kill for a scriptorium. Editorium? Medieval manuscript of the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today we’ll discuss a major tool in the copy editor’s arsenal—the style sheet.  I know it took me some time before I figured out what other people’s style sheets looked like (answer: they are diverse).  I’ll provide a few examples today for newbies who aren’t sure what they’re like and for others who have simply never gotten the courage to inquire.

Copy editors develop a record called a style sheet for nearly every project.  They use it to record stylistic choices they’ve made on ambiguous issues, so that the edit is made the same way every time.  People also commonly add rules from a style book (e.g., The Chicago Manual of Style) that they have a hard time remembering but know will come in handy.

In 2.52, Chicago states that “to ensure consistency, for each manuscript the editor must keep an alphabetical list of words or terms to be capitalized, italicized, hyphenated, spelled, or otherwise treated in any way unique to the manuscript.”  The manual provides a visual example in the form of fig. 2.3, which features, basically, an alphabetized list of terms as they should appear in the text.  For example, “Ungdom mot vold (rom)” indicates that instances of the foreign phrase “Ungdom mot vold,” though in a foreign language, should not be italicized.

My style sheets are less organized and economical.  Here’s an excerpt from my sheet for a project on Hinduism.
Month-day-year for dates (July 20, 1982)

Capitalize Raj.
Capitalize Ilbert Bill.
Quotation marks around Sanskrit passages in footnotes, if only to differentiate them from the translations that follow sometimes.  But don’t italicize.
Capitalize Purana.
Capitalize Vedanta.

There are also journal style sheets and house style sheets; these are more formal documents, distributed to copy editors working for a particular publishing house or on a particular journal.  Theoretically, they outline the ways in which the publisher has found it necessary to deviate from the preferred style book.  The journal style sheet for one prominent social science publication, for example, is seventeen pages long and covers issues such as the formatting of acknowledgment notes and hypothesis statements.  It states, counter to its guiding light CMoS, that editors should “use arabic numerals for 10 and above in text and titles” (the manual says 100 and above).

A book publisher for which I have taken an editing test sent me a twenty-five-page style sheet that included such dictums as “[Since we are] a secular and humanist/freethought publisher, [we] prefer BCE (Before the Common Era) to BC (Before Christ) and CE (Common Era) to AD (Anno Domini). These should be set in full caps following the year.”  Most of the sheet, however, contained basic grammar and style rules no different from normal careful usage (though enormously confusing to understand upon first reading).  Slogging through twenty-five pages of statements like “when a dependent clause is sandwiched between two main clauses, put a comma before the conjunction, after the conjunction, and after the dependent clause” is pretty stressful when all you want is to complete your editing test on time!


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