The Oxford Comma

by Aryana Adkanian | Saturday, August 25, 2018

by Aryana Adkanian
Saturday, August 25, 2018

I stopped dotting my i’s in middle school.

I had this new teacher, she taught reading, and was writing on the chalkboard one day and all the students stopped her and we were like, “wait… what’s that letter? Is that an i?”

“You forgot to dot your i,” we told her.

“I never dot my i’s,” she replied. And she kept writing. And she kept not dotting her i’s.

It seemed like everyone else in the room thought she was crazy, but I thought she was making total sense. The letter looked better that way – sleeker, almost.

So I stopped dotting my i’s, too, because I thought it made sense and I wanted to be like that teacher – she was a young woman, smart, cool, laid back and she was crazy about reading. She was one of the very first adults I encountered who liked reading and who weren’t the stereotypical middle-aged librarian.

It was around that same time in my life that I started adding two spaces to the ends of my sentences.

We had a computer class once a week at my middle school, where all the students sat in a room filled with ancient desktop computers and sticky keyboards to practice typing and using Internet Explorer.

Our teacher told us while we were typing that the correct way to type bodies of text was to put two spaces in between each sentence, not just one.

Everyone immediately rejected this idea and thought it was the silliest thing they ever heard. But I was intrigued.

So I started doing that, too. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but after a few days I savored the sound of my thumb smacking against the spacebar – not just once, but twice – after every sentence.

Then, years later, I went to college.

I decided I’d take the required English classes during my freshman year to get them out of the way (okay, who am I kidding – I wanted to take them).

In English class, I learned about MLA style and how to cite sources and format essays according to that style.

When I started working as a writing tutor, I helped endless amounts of students format their papers for MLA style and it became my bible.

Then I became a psychology minor, and I learned APA style. It was completely different from MLA style. The “Works Cited” page became “References,” a title page and an abstract were added, and bold fonts were sometimes acceptable to use. It seemed like a foreign language to me.

But after a month or so, I got used to it. I adapted. And instead of simply worshipping MLA format and protesting APA style, I accepted their differences and worked to understand why those styles were formatted in those ways. APA style, for example, places a large emphasis on research and the timeliness of information. So, when citing sources, it is necessary to include the author’s name and the year the study was published. For MLA, that’s not really the case.

Also while in college, my professors told me that typing two spaces between sentences was arbitrary and unnecessary. Some students used it to “lengthen” their writing to meet the page requirement, but I didn’t want to take any shortcuts while writing, which was something I enjoyed, so I opted to once again type one space between sentences.

It took a lot of trial and error to retrain my thumbs. For about the first month or so, I had to use the replace tool in Microsoft Word to find two spaces and replace them with one, which was an easy shortcut if my thumbs forgot to space once instead of twice.

Again, it took a while, but I adapted.

I took a journalism class in college, too, despite knowing nothing about the practice.

As I would learn throughout the semester, my professor was the epitome of a stereotypical journalist in the best possible way.

I wrote a few traditional essays in that class, as well as several news article mockup assignments and she handed every writing sample back to me with grammar corrections and marked up AP style errors in purple pen (she didn’t use red pen because it was too harsh and students couldn’t look past the red to see the actual meaning behind the marks – it’s a real phenomenon, I suggest looking it up).

At the time, it made me feel stupid and angry because I thought I was such a great writer and didn’t need all those stupid, tiny, insignificant corrections. Of course, I was wrong.

My professor taught the class that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, not around them or outside of them. Everyone was shocked, but it seemed like she was the most perplexed.

“I can’t believe you guys are in college and no one’s told you this before,” she said.

I couldn’t believe it, either. It looked wrong at first, to put commas and periods inside the quote, but once again, I eventually got used to it.

That journalism class and that former journalist-turned-professor taught me a lot about AP style, but nothing can really compare to how much I’ve learned while working at a newspaper.

I started working as an intern in May.

And then I had to abandon all the writing styles I learned in college, plus all the personal style choices I picked up along the way, and conform completely to AP style guidelines.

I had to ditch the Oxford comma. It’s been one of the hardest writing rules for me to follow. I was fine not dotting my i’s. I was alright with adding two spaces in between my sentences – and then reverting to one space several years later. I adapted to MLA style, and then APA style. I even abided by most of my journalism professor’s purple corrections.

But the one thing I was never able to handle was an absence of an Oxford comma.

I saw it removed from news and magazine articles in the past, sure, but in my own writing I always opted to include it. The sentence felt more complete that way. It felt whole; it felt correct. I always wrote with an Oxford comma for as long as I could remember.

And now I don’t.

And I’m okay with it.

And my past self is shocked – absolutely STUNNED – that I am writing this.

I think the Oxford commas and the undotted i’s and the spaces and all the professional writing styles show that change can always happen if you let it happen.

If you’ll let yourself, you can adapt to anything. You can let yourself change any part about your actions if you remind yourself that change is neither good nor bad. How you react to changes determine their outlook, but change is never inherently positive or negative.

It’s all about perspective.

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