State Dept Promotes Punctuated Equilibrium

Well, thank goodness we have some new reassurance that this administration’s State Department is doing its work to make the world a safer, more understandable place for all of us. CNN is reporting this week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is focused on Syria, North Korea, Iran, and the proper use of commas in department memos.

CNN documents two department-wide memos from Pompeo’s senior staff, giving department employees meticulous instructions on comma usage. “The Secretary has underscored the need for appropriate use of commas in his paper (both their inclusion and omission),” the memo declares.

Pompeo follows the Chicago Manual of Style and the latter memo provides many detailed examples, complete with explanations and color-coded highlighting.

“The administration is committed to achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace agreement, and remains optimistic that progress can be made,” one example reads, highlighting the comma after ‘agreement’ in bright yellow. “No comma when single subject with compound predicate,” the memo instructs.

We can sleep well at night, comforted in the assurance that the world may not be safe from bloodlust and cruelty, but our nation will not allow a run-on sentence where a period and capitalization should be preferred. Nothing matters more in this world than clarity of vision and clarity of thought.

As any editor will tell you, the best clarity is reductive. Eliminating excess verbiage will bring the reader more quickly to the point a writer is making. So Pompeo should be applauded for his courage to tackle one of the smallest points of punctuation. He has made his point, period.

This administration has sometimes been faulted for not always crossing its t’s and dotting its i’s, but Pompeo and the State Department can reverse that trend by taking a bold stand against other grammarly faux pas. (Educated newspaper readers understand that faux pas is both the singular and the plural, though the latter is pronounced differently.)

We initially supported the rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but now the opposition finds itself cornered in Idlib. We’ve left the rebellion’s principals dangling, but there will be no dangling participles coming from this administration.

It may seem as though the division between Israel and the Palestinians will go on forever, but this administration is offering a different view. We may be faced with an infinite split, but there will be no split infinitives.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has gotten almost a dozen senior officials convicted or pleading guilty to various crimes, so we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this administration believes that most sentences are too long.

President Trump reportedly groused when Twitter doubled its character limit, because he believed he had mastered the required brevity like none before him. “I’m the Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters ,” he stated at a political rally in South Carolina in 2015.

Trump regularly uses capitalization to emphasize his points, calculating that nobody reads punctuation anyway. As the Chicago Manual of Style states with confident concision, “effective use of the comma involves good judgment, with the goal being ease of reading.”

According to this manual, fewer commas can be used as proof positive of good judgment. That must always be the first concern for any Secretary of State.

If we keep the Oxford comma, the Revolutionary War was for nothing, nothing at all.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.