When I was studying history at Hope College, the name Turabian was used with near-religious reverence and fear. You didn’t ask why you were supposed to do something with your footnotes—you simply did it because “that’s what Turabian says.” Our professors enforced the inflexible edicts of Turabian exactly as they were set down in the book we all had to live by.
Who (or what) was this Turabian creature? In actual fact, she was a woman who lived between 1893 and 1987 who had a great impact on American English style. However, she is better known as the vengeful, near-immortal demigoddess of footnotes, the patron saint of history students and editors, and the un-photographable supreme arbiter of style. (Seriously, there are no verifiable photos of her on the Internet. I looked. She may have been a vampire.)
Kate L. Turabian was born and raised in Chicago, where an illness prevented her from attending college. In lieu of pursuing higher education, she worked as a typist at an advertising agency, where she worked alongside a young Sherwood Anderson. Later, she found her way into the academic world by taking a job as a departmental secretary at the prestigious University of Chicago. Rising through the ranks, in 1930 she was appointed the university’s dissertation secretary. In this position, every single doctoral thesis authored at the university had to cross her desk.
Having clawed her way into the heart of academia without so much as a bachelor’s degree, Turabian went a step further and authored a pamphlet describing the correct style for writing college dissertations. This work eventually grew into her magnum opus, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, a complete guide to academic writing and citation style. It was Turabian’s means of ruthlessly enforcing her high stylistic standards, and it spread throughout the American university world like wildfire. This is the book my classmates and I reverently referred to as “Turabian,” as if it were indistinguishable from its formidable author. (I had a professor who called it/her “Kate,” but that seemed dangerously informal to us.) All joking aside, I’m sure she was a lovely woman. She just scared the living daylights out of us with her draconian footnote rules.
But what does Kate Turabian have to do with the work we do at Black Lake? She’s relevant because Turabian’s book is where I first learned the standard for writing style that we use at the studio: The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). Turabian’s manual aligns closely with CMOS, though she focuses on academic writing and CMOS provides guidelines for publishing in general. The Chicago Manual was one of the first style guides published in the U.S. (1906), and as such it is largely responsible for the standardization of many of its rules. Like the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is constantly updated, especially to keep up with the digital innovations of recent years. And though it does have rivals in MLA and APA, it has been widely adopted by publishers and agencies, small and large alike.
Here at Black Lake, we subscribe to the online version of CMOS, chicagomanualofstyle.org. Whenever I have a question about American English style, including grammar, punctuation, and formatting, I log on and get the manual’s take. And, in the rare instances when our work involves footnotes, we follow CMOS’s/Turabian’s standards (shudder).
So, the next time you have a question about formatting, grammar, or any other issue of written style, check out CMOS or Turabian. The sheer number and strictness of the rules can be a bit intimidating at first, but your readers will thank you for making the effort.