University of Chicago Press’s But Can I Start a Sentence With “But”?

A book, But Can I Start a Sentence with But?, on a wooden table

Style guides are great, but even when they cover tons of subjects and scenarios, there will be questions. The editorial staff at the University of Chicago answer such questions on The Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A. But Can I Start a Sentence with But?: Advice From the Chicago Style Q&A collects the best of these questions.

Overview

neon green cover of But Can I Start a Sentence with But

Title: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?: Advice From the Chicago Style Q&A
Authors: The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff
ISBN: 0-266-37064-X

  • Entertainment value: high (if you’re an editor or otherwise logophilic reader)
  • Usefulness: medium
  • Recommended if you:
    • Love grammar and style
    • Learn by example
    • Enjoy a bit of snark

Review

I picked up this book at an editing conference expecting more insights on and examples for using the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which is the style guide I use most often. I did not expect to be laugh out loud while reading, but I did.

The thing about the Chicago Style Q&A is that it has a distinct tone. It’s very clear that real editors are behind the answers—editors who are intimately familiar with CMOS and whose responses are entirely human. That means that while there are answers that display a genuine desire to educate, there are also answers that show humour and snark, sometimes directed at the question asker (or someone they’ve mentioned) but at the editors themselves.

Although I occasionally found this snark a bit mean-spirited (how much can you fault people for seeking knowledge?), the conversational tone of the answers is also inviting. Instead of an academic guide directing readers from on high, we get something that feels more like a back and forth between colleagues.

Of course, a book like this isn’t meant to cover everything. So, it’s not as useful as actually reading CMOS itself. But there are many nuggets of wisdom alongside reassurances that many of our debates about English are matters of style rather than correctness. I probably won’t be pulling it out as a reference often, but its structure is straightforward and it has an index, so it seems quite useable if you happen to have a question similar to one included in the book.

All in all, it’s an informative yet not-so-serious complement to the Chicago Manual of Style.

Lessons From But Can I Start a Sentence With “But”?

Correctness

From the first chapter, But Can I Start a Sentence With “But”? draws a distinction between correctness and style, reminding readers that there’s a degree of subjectivity to what is considered correct: “‘Correctness’ is taken for granted as a goal—but correctness according to whom? What’s correct in a legal document might be a big mistake in a graphic novel or blog post.”

This is always important to keep in mind. Correctness is elusive. It’s often more beneficial to consider what style choices meet the reader’s needs rather than seeking one true correct option.

The Limits of CMOS

Part of the straightforward nature of this book is that it acknowledges that CMOS can’t address everything. Not every medium has a method for citation, for example. There are often multiple ways to address problems and plenty of oddball issues. But Can I Start a Sentence With “But”? gives some very helpful guidance here: “try not to panic.” When we’re faced with situations where a specific style guide rule doesn’t address our problem, we can extrapolate and exercise judgement to find our own solutions.

Editing Is Fun

Now, I’m predisposed to believe this, but I think But Can I Start a Sentence With “But”? makes it very clear that editing is fun. This profession isn’t just robotically following a strict set of guidelines. It’s exercising judgement and considering the myriad possibilities of language. It’s conferring with colleagues and laughing over language quirks. There’s a ton of room for fun, whether it’s in noting a humorous way a sentence can be misread or in being self-deprecating about the things we do wrong or inelegantly.

Is there a book you’d like me to review? Let me know in the comments.

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