For the typical college student, styles such as MLA, Chicago or APA should be almost second nature. However, besides journalism majors, many may not be familiar with or even aware of the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. This is the style most journalist publications follow, and those that do not, such as The New York Times, may modify AP to make their own “house style.”
First published in 1909, AP style’s purpose has been to make newspapers readable and to save paper while doing so. For this reason, states, for example, are abbreviated differently than they are on envelopes. Writing “Calif.” instead of “CA” removes the confusion between California and Canada. To save paper, Oxford, or serial, commas are removed from lists, a controversy among many writers and editors across English-speaking countries.
At The Fordham Ram, we practice a strict following of the AP Stylebook with no variations. This settles skirmishes between editors, or between Copy Chief Vanessa DeJesus and myself. I like AP’s state abbreviations but not the avoidance of the Oxford comma; DeJesus is the opposite. For us, AP style is how we compromise and aim for consistency based on a single standard. However, that standard could be baseless in 2019.
While the AP continues to update its style every year and accommodates by implementing the singular they and selectively allowing for split infinitives, it does not often budge on many stances. Yet on Oct. 22, the AP Stylebook’s official Twitter page delivered shocking news.
“We are considering changing to use ’s when making a name that ends in S possessive: Mavis Staples’s album, Martha Reeves’s concert,” the tweet read.
The tweet received more than 3.3 thousand responses, both negative and positive. Many, including multiple professional writers and authors, responded with pleas not to follow through with the change. Reasons for AP conservatives could include resistance to change or, simply, aesthetics.
“No. S’ is clean and tidy. Everyone knows what it means,” wrote Twitter user @raissathomas.
On the other hand, Connor Sheets, an investigative reporter for AL.com, shared his excitement toward the possible style amendment.
“As a journalist and person with a last name that ends in an S and also happens to be an actual English plural word mark me down as STRONGLY in favor of making this change! It’s more precise and avoids any questions about the writer’s intended meaning,” wrote Sheets.
On Oct. 30, AP responded to the criticisms of the naysayers by emphasizing its strive for consistency: “Our style on singular common nouns ending in s already adds ’s for possessives: witness’s. So we contemplate: For consistency, should the style be the same for proper names ending in s as for singular common nouns ending in s?”
Immediately, the new change made sense and appeared perfect, but something felt off about this statement. If this is for consistency’s sake, where is my Oxford comma? Let me explain. Just as how the Oxford comma was expelled from publications to preserve paper, so, too, was the extra “s” on possessives. In a world where print publications are endangered and more articles are available online than print, there is no longer a need for saving space.
With journalism and media evolving at such a fast rate, it only makes sense for the AP to do so as well, but it should do so with consistency. One of AP style’s goals is to provide clarity, and, more often than not, an Oxford comma does just that. This is no time for stubbornness and pride. Perhaps the proposed change for possessives is only a foreshadowing of more radical changes to come. Perhaps we can only hope — or plea into the Twitter void.
Whether editors, writers or readers may have their own individual feelings on grammar rules and possible, seemingly arbitrary updates to said rules, they ought not to deny the importance of consistency in the conversation, and not let that become an irony.
That being said: Associated Press, come up with a new argument for excluding the Oxford comma from your stylebook, or get with the times and technology.
Maggie Rothfus, FCRH ’20, is an English major from Pittsburgh, Pa.
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