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I have a confession to make. I love the Oxford comma. Reading that probably surprises many of the excellent reporters who have been on the receiving end of my edits. Adhering to the AP Stylebook, I often kicked the trigger happy comma to the curb in the name of conserving space. I suspect I annoyed more than a couple reporters in my fervor to purge it from each article I could.

That probably also sounds nerdy and strangely specific, and it is, but it comes down to asking myself questions. What can I do? What should I do? What do I need to learn in order to do what I feel is right? I ask myself important, guiding questions, or at least I try. The question that matters most, however, is this one: Do I want to be correct or kind?

I first asked that question when I took an editing class at the start of my senior year. The instructor, who I consider a good-intentioned and intelligent person, stressed early on that he/him and she/her pronouns were the only “proper” ways of referring to an individual. And, in formal English, that is correct. But when I joined The Standard as a copy editor that same semester, I had to ask myself if I wanted to go by standard rules — no pun intended — or if I wanted to help create a new space.

As a person outside the gender binary, I find some dissonance with the current formal usage. The truth is our language is messy, incomplete and volatile. In other words, risking sounding like a mad scientist, it’s alive. 

Old, white, rich men made, and make, the decisions on what is proper based on their experiences of the world. With some relatively recent exceptions, there is no place for people like me in their perspectives. They literally don’t have the language for it. So I am forced to make space, but there is power in that as well.

As an aside, AP style introduced the singular “they” in April of this year, which I am glad to see, but I’m an English major — my interest is in a broader fight still very much raging on.

This is where the elements of innovation and creativity enter. Correctness shifts constantly, and it varies based on background, dialect, media, belief. Just ask a Midwesterner if “soda” or “pop” is correct — or ask a Brit to spell what we Americans rightly identify as “aluminum.” The same rule applies; this is how I view the world, and I use the language I have to share my worldview.

Working on the news since the fall of 2021, I have seen how language can be misused. Think about unjust legislation that has come to light in the US on human rights topics, propaganda the Russian government uses to justify the war in Ukraine or misinformation campaigns designed to prolong a global pandemic. Language in the wrong hands is a dangerous tool. 

Still, is that little comma the source of all the evil in the world? Probably not. We get along just fine, for the most part, without it. Personally, I think it clarifies what could otherwise be ambiguous and simplifies what could otherwise be complex. But I have bigger fish to fry; I am working on creating new space. 

So what does this new space look like? I’m getting a better idea. I am pursuing the new space of the Master’s in English program here at Missouri State University in the fall. I want to teach this living language to others. And I am beginning to look at my instructors as models for who I want to become (or not become), something I would not have imagined four years ago.

As a freshman or even a sophomore, I never would have imagined teaching college English. Ironically, I was an Education major as a freshman but switched to English when I realized if I kept this up I would have to work with children. Despite my best efforts, I continually return to the role of the educator. 

Whatever role I take, whatever path I choose, what matters in the end is that I am kind. If I can be correct too, well, that’s great. Who doesn’t want to be correct? But if I have to choose, I know what I will choose every time. 

In the same spirit, it’s time I said thank you before goodbye. To The Standard team, thank you for taking me in. Specifically, thank you, Desiree, for your advice and support when I knew nothing of the mysterious ways of the reporter. Thank you, Sidney, for your cheerfulness and Dylan, for your relentless positivity. Thank you, last but not least, the news team for entrusting your work to me. I am better for having been here with you all.

I find myself now, like T. S. Eliot said about something probably much grander and more important, at “the end of all our exploring” having arrived where I started and “know the place for the first time.” I am grateful for this space to reflect on the past four years, finally at journey’s end.

Except, of course, this isn’t the end. Only an end.

 

Follow Eli Slover on Twitter, @slover_eli

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