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Old Style Guides: To Save or Not to Save?

Reading The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) "New Questions and Answers" column today, I got a huge laugh from the final question and answer:

Question: My library shelves are full. I need to make some difficult decisions to make space for new arrivals. Is there any reason to keep my CMOS 14th and 15th editions?  

Answer: What a question. If you had more children, would you give away your firstborn? Find a board and build another shelf.

I can't add the building of a shelf to my to-do list, and my husband would not take on the task either. So I have given away my CMOS 15th edition, Gregg Reference Manual 10th edition, AP Stylebook 2008, and even my Garner's Modern American Usage, 2nd edition, not to mention a perfectly good but updated dictionary.

I used to save earlier editions of style guides, and I occasionally consulted them to compare how things had changed. Now I let them go. It doesn't matter how we used to do it. What's important is how we write today.

One exception is my Handbook of Business English by George Burton Hotchkiss and Edward Jones Kilduff, published in 1914. I like to keep it around to consult when people in business writing classes ask me, "When did they make up that rule?" In many cases I can answer, "Around a hundred years ago."

What do you do with old style manuals? Donate them to charity? Build another shelf? Prop up a child sitting in a too-big chair? Please share your secrets.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

6 comments on “Old Style Guides: To Save or Not to Save?”

  • Like you, I got a big laugh from the CMOS column when I read that. And I also agree with you on getting rid of the old style manuals. Style guides keep evolving as communication modes change, and the manuals are kind of huge – why keep the old ones if you don’t have room?

    On the other hand, it is interesting to see how things change – my 1981 Webster’s has an illustration of an Afro (hairdo). No wonder my British husband always jokes about American dictionaries having pictures!

  • More & more, I’m moving to searchable electronic versions. Just can’t stand dusting more shelves. And the last time my family moved, the boxes of books & CDs were back-breaking.

    If you watched Star Trek: Next Generation, you may have seen Captain Picard once receive a gift of a first-edition print copy of some Dickens novel. Everything else he read on an iPad-like device. My own library (text, music, & video alike) is certainly moving that direction. Only a few old books remain at home; the rest are finding their way to GoodWill.

    Lester Smith

  • Hi, Val. Maybe you can recycle your 1981 Webster’s. The latest “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary”–that’s the 11th edition–also includes an illustration of an afro.

    I hadn’t realized American dictionaries were odd in their inclusion of illustrations.

    As always, thanks for your comment.


  • Hi, Lester. Electronic versions have not yet won me over. I experimented with the trial online version of “The Chicago Manual of Style,” but it did not compare to the feel of the pages flipping through my fingers and the endless possibilities of hitting on something exciting on a page.

    I am sure online versions are in my future. I am just not ready yet.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • Remember the phrase “Murder your darlings”? It means: Sometime we have to get rid of things we love, in the cause of greater clarity and power. I have found that when I get rid of books and other things that I rarely (or never) use, my mind gets a little liberated. I can focus better on the here and now. If your goal is to get guidance on word usage, get and keep the best reference work. If your goal is to hold on to heirlooms, fine, do it, but recognize the costs of a cluttered office.

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