The AP Stylebook recently endorsed capitalizing “Black” when referring to the racial or ethnic group. Now the other major stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, has joined in. But the CMoS announcement is hardly a masterpiece of clarity.
Yes. I’m about to critique the style of a book on style. Of course I am.
What’s wrong with the CMoS announcement?
The announcement is below, with my analysis included.
Black and White: A Matter of Capitalization
In light of recent announcements elsewhere in publishing, many of our readers have been asking us whether we continue to recommend lowercase for terms such as black and white to refer to a person’s race or ethnicity, “unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise”—as we have advised in section 8.38 of the most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.
So we are taking this opportunity to clarify that, as of today—partly in light of old arguments, partly in light of new, and very much in light of recent and ongoing events and the evidence of a real shift in usage across many sources—we have joined the ranks of those who “prefer otherwise.”
First rule: put the most important information in the title and the lede. Instead, CMoS starts with “In light of recent announcements, many of our readers . . ” and ends the second paragraph with “we have joined the ranks of those ‘who prefer otherwise.’ “
Folksy. Clever. And weak.
Just start by saying you recommend capitalizing Black when referring to ethnicity. Then give the context. If you can read the first two paragraphs and still be confused about where the CMoS stands, they haven’t done their jobs.
Specifically, we now prefer to write Black with a capital B when it refers to racial and ethnic identity. At the same time, we acknowledge that, as a matter of editorial consistency, White and similar terms may also be capitalized when used in this sense. We continue to recognize that individual preferences will vary, and we acknowledge that usage may depend on context. A correction has been made to CMOS Online and will also appear in subsequent printings of the seventeenth edition.
Finally, in paragraph 3, the CMoS states its decision clearly. And then it waffles, passively. “White and similar terms may also be capitalized” is passive (better “Writers may capitalize . . . “). This paragraph is equivocal: should White be capitalized? Maybe. Then “individual preferences may vary” and “usage may depend on context.” So CMoS’s stand is full of loopholes. It finishes with the passive “A correction has been made.” I expect more.
As a matter of editorial policy, we avoid making substantive changes to our rules and recommendations between editions, which have historically appeared every seven to ten years. Each edition, then, reflects the prevailing editorial practices at the time of publication. This policy is important to the many writers and editors who apply Chicago style to projects that are developed over the course of months and years, particularly in book publishing.
We do, however, make corrections and clarifications as needed to resolve typographical and other minor errors discovered after publication. These changes are reflected immediately online. And, as always, we use this forum and our Q&A to provide our readers with updates on our latest thinking.
The change we are making today goes beyond the mere correction of a typographical error, but we felt it was too important to hold for the next edition.
I’m sure the Black people who have strived for recognition of their status as an ethnic group are pleased to know that they are more than a typographical error. Really? A little more dignity would be nice here.
Specifically, it is no longer accurate to observe, as we did in 2017 when the seventeenth edition was published, that “black and white . . . are usually lowercased.” Though usage is far from settled, many writers, editors, and publishers now capitalize one or both terms.
The quoted passage is passive. And the theme is that CMoS is trying to catch up to people who actually make decisions.
We offer this update to our recommendations not as a requirement but as a guideline in the service of editorial logic and consistency. As always, we remain true to the caveat in our very first edition: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”
In practice, the editors in our Books Division have long taken this principle to mean that if an author has a conscious and consistently applied preference regarding capitalization, punctuation, or the like that differs from what the Manual recommends, we will respect that preference. That is the spirit in which our advice is offered, and in which we hope others receive and interpret it.
More passives: “cannot be endowed . . . are meant . . . must be applied.” And they follow that up with “Do whatever you want, as long as you are consistent.” And then more passive: “advice is offered.”
Why these passives? This is a common problem: people who make decisions, but don’t want to draw attention to the fact that they made the decision. CMoS will get the same criticism for a wimpy, equivocal stance as for a firm one. So be firm! This is no time to be wimpy.
At the same time, we do not want to diminish the significance of our decision, which owes a lot to recent events and to persuasive voices—especially those of Black and Brown authors and their allies in publishing and elsewhere—not only in academia but in news outlets and on social media. The commitment of the Press to honor these voices is at the heart of this change.
Going forward, we hope to more fully incorporate today’s recommendations in future editions of the Manual, though not before conducting a rigorous examination of changing usage, in consultation with our colleagues and readers outside the Press. In the interim, it is with a spirit of equity and with an eye toward future generations—and with a debt of gratitude owed to those who have led us here—that we embrace the changes we have announced today. We hope you will embrace them too.
University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff
How nice that Black and Brown authors were persuasive. It’s just a shame you needed to be persuaded.
And then “we hope to more fully incorporate today’s recommendations in future editions of the Manual, though not before conducting a rigorous examination of changing usage, in consultation with our colleagues and readers outside the Press.” This makes the decision sound provisional, rather than definitive. And if there is one thing the manual of style ought to be, it is definitive.
One more thing. My new least favorite word is “hope.” As in “we hope to more fully incorporate” and “We hope that you will embrace them, too.” For someone who is supposed to be an authority, “hope” is a failed word. Say what you mean. Tell us what to do. I have no use for hope. What I want is clear guidance.
Pathetic. It is better to make the right decision than the wrong one . . . but it is not so great to do so in an equivocal and “hopeful” way.
If you’re an authority, or plan to be one, learn from this. Don’t hope. Direct. Proclaim. Analyze. Give instructions. You’ll get a lot more respect.