Elements of Style

Three new reference works.

Winter, 2017–2018 / No. 40
Photo by Conan Tobias
Conan Tobias

Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, recently announced plans to sell his controlling stake in the magazine he founded fifty years ago. Rolling Stone earned its reputation not only through coverage of music and popular culture, but also as a trusted outlet for long-form journalism and political reportage. In 2014, the magazine published “A Rape on Campus,” the account of a female student at the University of Virginia who claimed to have been gang raped at a fraternity party. The story garnered major media attention—especially when it became clear that it wasn’t true. The university filed a libel suit against Rolling Stone, eventually settling for three million dollars. The fraternity filed its own twenty-five million dollar suit against the magazine, for which it received $1.65 million. A third suit, by members of the fraternity, is pending.

Rolling Stone, like most legacy media outlets, has suffered financially in the digital age. Wenner Media, its parent company, is still big enough to survive the financial hit of the lawsuits brought against it to date, but the damage done to the magazine’s reputation could seriously hamper Wenner’s ability to sell and secure the future of the magazine he spent a lifetime building. The Columbia Journalism Review called Rolling Stone’s article “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable,” encompassing the story’s reporting, editing, and fact checking—the system employed by many consumer magazines as a fail-safe to ensure every fact in the stories they publish is actually true. “The particulars of Rolling Stone’s failure,” the Review’s investigation continued, “make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail.”

The University of Chicago Press is doing its part to encourage best journalistic practices with a new book, The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking, by Brooke Borel, a Popular Science editor and fact-checking instructor. Staffs of traditional news media are shrinking, as the public appetite for news only continues to grow. At many publications (especially in Canada), dedicated fact checkers are now seen as a cutable expense, with the onus of accuracy shifted to writers. The Chicago Guide should be required reading for anyone working in the media industry, especially those forced to work without a fact-checking net. Borel explains, in ways even the most novice checker will understand, the whys and hows of fact checking, and breaks down the process for checking various types of facts, including numbers, quotes, images, and foreign languages. She also discusses navigating the potentially fraught relationships between writers, editors, and checkers, and, perhaps most importantly, fact checking on a budget and how to check your own work. Borel’s book offers nothing more or less than the previous most-accessible book on fact checking, Sarah Harrison Smith’s excellent The Fact Checker’s Bible, published in 2004. But Borel, unlike Smith, has written in a textbook format, with frequent skill-testing questions and activities, which probably makes it a more useful guide to novices.

If there’s one criticism to be made, it’s the delegation of political fact checking to a brief mention in the conclusion. A more detailed analysis of that topic would have been welcome, given how much the work of organizations such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes have done both to inform the public and give it a healthy skepticism of what they read and see in the news. The book also was written too early to cover the recent widespread impact of the “fake news” phenomenon—and the public’s sometimes unhealthy skepticism of the media. Hopefully both topics will be explored further in future editions.

The University of Chicago Press recently released another useful reference, the seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, a book that has been the go-to editorial reference for book publishers, media, and academics for nearly half its century-long existence. The gap between editions of the C.M.S. has shrunk progressively, to about every seven years since the turn of the century, and new editions tend to coincide with major technology-based changes in the publishing industry. The latest version, for example, includes new sections on metadata and proofreading tools for PDF documents, details the various types of electronic-publication formats, and has expanded its explanation of Creative Commons licences.

On the editorial side, the press has clarified its techniques for achieving gender neutrality. Some may be offended by the book’s continued stance against artificial genderless pronouns, though it does maintain that personal preference should be respected at the end of the day. Also, while it’s rare to see this well-researched book backtrack on a rule just one edition old, that’s exactly what the editors have done with their previous advice on italicizing Web sites analogous to a printed work.

It’s unfortunate Canada doesn’t have a reputable style guide to call its own (with all due respect to the Canadian Press’s Stylebook, that publication is more a reporters’ tool than a thorough style guide.) The C.M.S. continues to throw Canada the meagerest of bones. Its section on Canada’s Indigenous population is incomplete and outdated, and, while for years now it has offered both standard and postal abbreviations for U.S. states, it continues to offer only postal abbreviations for Canadian provinces and territories—which at least makes it easier to write the editors a letter of complaint.

One of the more interesting Canada-centric projects to appear during the country’s sesquicentennial surely must be the long overdue second edition of A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles. The first edition was published in 1967, by W. J. Gage, and written by a group of academics who felt Canada needed a historical language reference in the tradition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (Ironically, the lexicographer who initially spearheaded the project was an American.) The first edition was popular with the public and sold well, yet a follow-up never materialized. Talk of a new edition began at a conference on Canadian English at the University of Toronto in 2005, and Stefan Dollinger, a professor at the University of British Columbia, who was then completing his Ph.D., eventually accepted the job of bringing the dictionary into the twenty-first century. The D.C.H.P.-2 (which lists the University of British Columbia as its publisher, though the project was funded by a variety of sources and is hosted on a private site) is available exclusively on-line, and contains all ninety-nine hundred entries from the first edition, as well as more than a thousand new entries. All told, the combined editions offer more than fourteen thousand meanings.

The D.C.H.P.-2 is a fascinating read. “Parkade” and “toque” are there, but their entries contain more than just a simple one-sentence meaning. The entire history of each word is offered, including its earliest known appearance. “Hoser,” for example, is credited to Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis, who (possibly) invented the word for their characters Bob and Doug McKenzie. The entry for “eh” is nearly five thousand words long.

For a dictionary that was created as a digital product, its search engine could use some work. A search for “double-double” will tell you the phrase originated with the Tim Hortons coffee chain to describe a cup of coffee with two servings of cream and sugar. A search for “double double,” without the hyphen, will tell you no headwords matched your search.

Canada hasn’t had a popular desk reference since Oxford closed its Canadian office in 2008 and stopped updating its Canadian dictionary. The D.C.H.P.-2, unfortunately, isn’t a replacement—it covers only words of Canadian origin (and a few words often thought to be Canadian, that aren’t). But it is an interesting supplement to whatever dictionary you use day-to-day, and definitely worth bookmarking on your digital reference shelf.

[Correction: In “Elements of Style,” a look at three new reference works, by Conan Tobias, from Taddle Creek No. 40, an error both ironic and embarrassing occurs in the first instance of the title A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, in which the title’s final word is misspelled “Principals.” Obviously the editor needs to take his own advice and always be sure to check proper names letter by letter. Taddle Creek regrets the twentieth-anniversary error.]