Topic: Jane Haxby

“To enchain syllables, and to lash the wind”: An Introduction to Style Guides

By Jane Haxby, Copy Editor
October 13, 2017

The first ever Washington Papers style guide. Image provided by author.

When I tell people that I am a copy editor at The Washington Papers, most are horrified: “You edit George Washington?!” When I explain that The Washington Papers is a documentary editing project, they are even more confused: “You make movies?”

Eventually, I get around to describing what I really do. Copyediting is what I imagine most people think of as editing: correcting grammar, syntax, and spelling; clarifying meaning; and checking for consistency of style and formatting. I do not, I promise, change Washington’s words. Our volume editors carefully and accurately transcribe his letters and documents (hence, “documentary editing”) and then annotate them, researching and explaining all references to people, places, and events so that readers can understand what Washington and his correspondents wrote. It is primarily this annotation that I copyedit.

When I arrived at The Washington Papers, my first task was to read through our in-house style guide. Readers may be familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style, or with MLA or AP style. These guides independently address a plethora of questions ranging from how to hyphenate and capitalize, to the correct use of pronouns (yes, Chicago now sanctions the singular “they”1), to how to cite virtually any source imaginable. Many of us were taught that there is only one right way to do these things. I remember learning in grade school that in a list of three or more items, I should not separate the last two with a comma, and that when typing, I should follow every period with two spaces. The latter rule is a relic of the typewriter age and has been superseded, one of many examples of how written (not to mention spoken) language evolves. The former is still followed by some style guides but not by others,2 indicating that language rules are not universal even at any one moment. This is why The Washington Papers has a style guide.

In the few years I have been with The Washington Papers, we have added to our in-house style guide multiple rules that reflect recent discussions specific to our project. One of the challenges and joys of working on a multivolume documentary editing project is that each volume is part of a much larger edition. Once a style decision is made, we include the new rule in our style guide so that volume editors can apply it moving forward. This week, I am fixing what has been a somewhat haphazard approach to historic college names in past volumes—for example, Columbia University was “King’s College” until 1784, when it was renamed “Columbia College.” The fact that we haven’t been consistent in how we refer to this and similar institutions, even on a long-term project with careful scholars, simply shows the slipperiness of language. The question is not merely one of following rules, but of making the rules in order to follow them in the future.

Style guides, as we know them today, began about a century ago. The first Chicago Manual of Style was published in 1906, the same year as Henry Watson Fowler’s The King’s English. Only 20 years later came Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which, now in its fourth edition, is still a mainstay of writers and publishers.3 These style guides, of course, build on even earlier publications. The author of a 16th-century proto-dictionary introduced his work as an “elementarie which entreateth chefelie of the right writing of our English tung.”4 In 1755, more than a century before the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language. His preface reminds us of the mutability of language even while it introduces his attempt to impose stability on it:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.5

Sadly, neither Johnson’s dictionary nor any style guide can clear the world of folly. But our in-house style guide does serve the larger purpose of documentary editing–conservation–which Johnson is simultaneously celebrating and lamenting the impossibility of here. We publish Washington’s papers to preserve his words and wisdom for any and all to read and use. Our in-house rules, as pedantic as they may sometimes appear, help stabilize our approach, making those words and their annotation as consistent and comprehensible as we “sublunary”6 mortals can make them.

 

Notes

  1. For a discussion of Chicago‘s recommended uses of “they” as a generic singular pronoun, see “CMOS Stop Talk” for April 3, 2017: http://cmosshoptalk.com/2017/04/03/chicago-style-for-the-singular-they/
  2. The absence of this comma can have real-world effects, as a Maine dairy company learned in March 2017. See Daniel Victor, “Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute,” New York Times for March 16, 2017, at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/16/us/oxford-comma-lawsuit.html?_r=0.
  3. For this edition, see http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199661350.001.0001/acref-9780199661350; for an entertaining review, see Jim Holt, “H. W. Fowler, the King of English,” New York Times Book Review for Dec. 10, 2009, at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/13/books/review/Holt-t.html. For the full 1908 edition, see http://www.bartleby.com/116/101.html.
  4. For the British Library note and images, see http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126632.html.
  5. For the British Library note and images, see http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126707.html. For a transcription of the full preface by Jack Lynch of Rutgers University, see https://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/preface.html.
  6. “Sublunary” literally means “beneath the moon,” or earthly. Johnson used it to connote impermanence, as in the third OED definition, “Characteristic of this world and its concerns; mundane; material; temporal, ephemeral.” The corresponding 1609 example following this OED entry illustrates it even better: “No pompe (how euer glorious) No ioy or pleasure, if sublunarie, But brings sacietie soone with their vse.”

 

Rick Britton: Portrait of the (Map) Artist

by Jane Haxby, Copy Editor, and Kathryn Lebert, Communications Specialist
September 6, 2017

British Operations Against Charleston, S.C. (1780), as originally published in Revolutionary War Series, volume 24. Copyright of Rick Britton.

In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s take on Hamlet, Rosencrantz tells Guildenstern that he doesn’t believe in England. Guildenstern shoots back, “Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean?”1

Here at The Washington Papers, we may not have the makings of a conspiracy, but—amazingly—we do have a cartographer. Historian, photographer, and tour guide, Rick Britton conspires with our editors to craft the maps that appear in our volumes.2 Perhaps more accurately described as, in his words, a “map illustrator,” Britton draws maps by hand using historical references and a list of landmarks compiled by the editors. He goes beyond simply including all the necessary elements, however: His maps are not only accurate and scholarly, but original works of art.

How does one become a historical map illustrator? For Britton, it began with an interest in history. As he tells it, when he was a teenager, he “just fell in love with the maps in the old history books, the maps the way they looked back then, the maps the way they were drawn during the Civil War and during the American Revolution.” He taught himself to enlarge maps using the same “grid method” artists have been using for centuries. This involves drawing a grid over an image and then proportionally reproducing that image by using a larger grid of equal ratio.3 He covered his bedroom walls with freehand reproductions of his favorite maps. And in the course of copying the maps he loved, he also learned how to draw the terrain symbols and other graphic design elements used by the cartographers of those periods.

Britton still revels in the details of historically accurate maps. For him, “it’s all about making it fit the period.” As with all true craftsmen, the joy he takes in the details of his art shines through. In the map of Virginia that will appear in the upcoming edition of George Washington’s Barbados diary, Britton drew icons for the buildings that were important in Washington’s youth, including his childhood home (now called Ferry Farm) and his later residence, Mount Vernon. To render these tiny images, he found depictions online of the buildings as they looked at the time, drew them, and then shrunk them (now using modern technology rather than his early training in the grid method). For the same upcoming volume, Britton mapped the route to Barbados that Washington recorded in his ship’s log, as recreated mathematically by editor Alicia K. Anderson. For that map, he departed from the border that he has made standard for The Washington Papers and drew a new one based on eighteenth-century nautical maps. He reflects that the period-specific border was “pretty complicated to draw, but it makes the whole thing fit.”

Northeast New Jersey (1780), as originally published in Revolutionary War Series, volume 25. Copyright of Rick Britton.

Skillfully using pencil and compass, Britton illuminates events for readers of presidential papers, including The Washington Papers, The Papers of James Madison, and The Papers of Thomas Jefferson; for students of the American Civil War and World Wars I and II; and even for players of a Tolkien-based game for which he hand-lettered maps of Middle Earth. Partly because his maps often depict places and scenarios that no longer exist—or that exist only in the imagination—Britton routinely cannot visit the sites he illustrates. But even when he is unable to see an area, his work offers a new perspective on it, not only for readers but for himself as well. In the course of his research into the Civil War battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, two Confederate forts whose captures opened major waterways to the Union army, Britton’s geographical fluency helped him to grasp the brilliance of General Ulysses S. Grant’s gunboat strategy. Grant knew that the Tennessee River, on which Fort Henry stood, and the Cumberland River, likewise guarded by Fort Donelson, flow north into the Ohio. “Of course, looking at the map I could see it!” Britton marvels. “Even though [the steam-paddle gunboats were] going south, they were going upriver to bombard the boats and the forts on the land. If they got in too much trouble—for example, if they were getting too much enemy fire—all they had to do was cut the engines and float away.”4

Britton is particularly interested in the minutiae of historical engagements and the unique ability of maps to convey those details. Two of Britton’s favorites among his own works are his illustrations of Northeast New Jersey and of British operations against Charleston, S.C., both in 1780 (published in Revolutionary War Series volumes 24 and 25, and reproduced here). He enjoys illustrating in such detail because “it makes it so much easier for the reader to understand exactly what happened.” On a deeper level, the historian within him values maps like these because such “small-unit actions” have been “largely overlooked, and it’s so important for us to honor those who fought, and suffered, and died on our behalf.”

Rick Britton advances the study of and joy in history in everything he does. He confesses that he loves “things the way they used to be.” The twin goals of documentary editing are scholarship and accessibility, helping a wider audience understand the past. Britton’s maps offer both, and the volumes of The Washington Papers that have the good fortune to include them are all the more beautiful for it.

 

Notes

  1. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (New York, 1967), Act 3, p. 106.
  2. Find Rick Britton’s website at http://www.rickbritton.com.
  3. Find step-by-step instructions in the “grid” technique at https://sibleyfineart.com/tutorial–gridding-art.htm.
  4. For a summary of the battle of Fort Henry, see https://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/tn001.htm. For an 1875 map showing the two forts and their respective rivers, see https://www.civilwar.org/learn/maps/positions-fort-henry-fort-donelson.