Book Review: But Can I Start a Sentence with "But"?

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Please don’t read this book on the tram if you get embarrassed when laughing out loud in public.

Over almost 20 years, the Chicago Style Q&A web page has evolved a voice and style that is not only witty and cheeky but is guaranteed to unknot the knickers of any editor agonising over an editorial decision.

Readers of The Chicago Manual of Style’s website began submitting style and grammar questions in 1997 to the Q&A page, which was updated monthly by manuscript editors at the University of Chicago Press.

Before that, readers would call up to ask editorial questions when they got hopelessly confused navigating the enormity of the information contained in CMOS.

As Q&A Editor Carol Fisher Saller says in her foreword: ‘Not that we actively solicited such queries; in fact to be honest, they could be a little annoying. After all, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to call up a major university press and expect an editor there to stop what she’s doing and determine whether nonfat takes a hyphen. (It doesn’t.)’

When they invited questions, demand was so great that they needed to choose a few of the most interesting questions to answer each month, so they could still meet their deadlines.

The book is a deliciously produced hard-cover edition, as any aficionado of The Chicago Manual of Style would expect. With 108 pages of the best questions and 10 pages of index (also as you’d expect!), it manages to remain compact while still being a comprehensive style read-cum-reference book.

The book begins with a whole chapter on applying judgement as opposed to correctness – ‘It’s not so much a matter of correctness as of ickiness’. This helps with the problem of making a decision when reference guides disagree on matters such as abbreviations, compounds, possessives and so on.

Proper nouns and titles of works take a chapter, as do commas, hyphens, vertical lists, dots, dashes and squiggles. Example:

Q. In a sentence, a colon should always be preceded by an independent clause. Why doesn’t the Chicago Manual state this explicitly? All your examples follow the principle. Why doesn’t the manual just say that the introductory clause has to be independent?

A. Because we’re a bunch of spineless and ineffectual prevaricators? Or because there are times when a colon need not be preceded by an independent clause? A case in point: this one.

Other chapters – ‘Can fewest mean zero?’; ‘If you give birth to a source and he’s still living under your roof  ...’; ‘Holy metaphysics—we aren’t that fancy’; and ‘“Aaagh” to “argh!” to “aahhh!”’ – deal with everything from prepositions to URLs to ‘Things that freak us out’.

Especially recommended for easing the brain overload brought on by staring at a dodgy text for too long. (And if you do read it on the tram, mind you don’t miss your stop.)

Jackey Coyle

But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”? Advice from the Chicago Style Q&A. The University of Chicago Press editorial staff, with a foreword by Carol Fisher Saller. University of Chicago Press, 2016.