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Kerby: It’s time for a change in style

Steve Kerby, Staff Columnist

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In publishing houses and newspapers, or any organization with significant written output, the “Style Guide” is the foundation of editing. Armed with a style guide, editors have clear-cut guidance on spelling, punctuation and organizational issues. Through the hard work of an editorial staff, the garbled output of grammatically fluid writers like me becomes legible and uniform.

Here at Case Western Reserve University, we have a style guide of our own, which largely follows “The Associated Press Stylebook (AP),” a mainstay in the newspaper industry. At CWRU, we only diverge from AP style in select ways; for example, academic titles like “PhD” are not punctuated with periods in official writing here, while AP style suggests “Ph.D.”

It is the existence of these digressions from AP style that emboldens me to suggest another change that would make writers at CWRU sigh with relief, make editorial workloads lessened and make our collegiate writings legible and fluid. I call on the administration of this university to revise our style guide and endorse the inclusion of the Oxford comma, contrary to the AP’s perennial condemnation of the article of punctuation.

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial or series comma, follows the second-to-last member of a list: “Alice, Bob, and Charlie” would be an example of its usage. The AP has been historically outspoken in their rejection of what they call an unnecessary blot. They defended their ways in a tweet from October, stating, “It’s consistent with our general rule for punctuation: Use punctuation that is needed; don’t use what’s not needed.”

Ignoring the oversaturation of colons and semi-colons in this tweet, there are several compelling reasons for this university to counter the AP’s forceful opposition to the Oxford comma. The first is subjective, but also perhaps the most important, as it is entirely artistic.

The Oxford comma provides equality and order in lists, signifying members as equals. When “Alice, Bob, and Charlie” go to the store, there is no suggestion that two of the three possess some special relation. “Alice, Bob and Charlie,” on the other hand, carries a subtle suggestion. The AP, in eschewing the comma except when necessary, opens up dozens of cases in which the comma’s inclusion is arguable one way or the other.

A writer could spit back that many commas are necessary for stylistic reasons. If the rule is changed, adopting the comma except in the most specific cases, the grey space of editorial confusion narrows to a slim margin of contrived examples.

The Oxford comma also provides rhythm, more precisely emulating in writing how lists are rendered in voice. “Alice, Bob, and Charlie” is pronounced with a pause between “Alice” and “Bob,” and between “Bob” and “and Charlie.” On the other hand, “Alice, Bob and Charlie” read literally would not have a pause between “Bob” and “and Charlie,” a sudden and concerning jaunt in tempo. This is most obvious in songs like “Piddle, Twiddle, and Resolve” from the popular musical “1776.” The lyrics are sung exactly as written, with the comma.

Many respond with skepticism when I claim that 95 percent of writers instinctively use the Oxford comma and endorse it, but this is not an exaggeration. Over the past months, I’ve gotten in contact with academics, writers and teachers, and the overwhelming majority of those who write in English agree: the comma is warranted. Does the art of writing not belong collectively to those whose efforts produce it? Why should the stylistic choices of 95 percent of writers be squashed by the AP’s antiquated rules?

Closer to home, prominent and respected voices here at CWRU also pitched in when I contacted them on the subject. Professor Christopher Flint, chair of the Department of English notes that “it provides exactitude, allowing you to distinguish at the end of a long list between ‘Laurel and Hardy’ (a comedy duo) and ‘Laurel, and Hardy’ (a musician and an author),” though “most people understand the meaning of a sentence with or without the Oxford comma 95 percent of the time.” Prominent alumni, including Anu Garg, founder of wordsmith.org, also endorse the comma.

I sent an email to President Barbara Snyder asking her opinion, but had no luck in getting a response.

It seems sad that the AP can hold back the deluge of support for the comma with their stranglehold on style guides, but we at CWRU can take a strong stand for clarity by changing our own style guide to endorse the comma except when absolutely unnecessary. If that goes too far, the decision should at least be left to the discretion of individual writers who know the machinery behind their writing best.

Steve Kerby is a fourth-year student, almost done studying astronomy and physics. He would like to remind you to aim for eight hours of sleep each night.

About the Writer
Steve Kerby, Staff Columnist

Steve Kerby is a fourth-year student studying astronomy and physics. When he grows up, he wants to be older.

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Kerby: It’s time for a change in style