Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the war against improper commas

According to CNN, Mike Pompeo wants all State Department staff to stop using commas improperly. This obviously warrants all of our attention.

The article, snarkily titled “Pompeo cracks down, on improper use, of commas at State Department,” reveals that Pompeo is an admirer of the Chicago Manual of Style and the Oxford Comma, also known as the serial comma, which is used in phrases like “North Korea, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Delaware.” Here are a few excerpts:

Source: CNN

This raises two questions. First, is Pompeo right about the importance of commas? And second, is this where he should be focusing his efforts?

About those commas . . .

Commas matter in diplomacy.

A misplaced comma in an official document could change the meaning of a treaty or a policy.

Suppose North Korea agreed to “Dismantle its nuclear arsenal, launchers and rocket engines.” And suppose what we really wanted was “Dismantle its nuclear arsenal, launchers, and rocket engines.”

The former could imply that the nuclear arsenal to be dismantled consists only of launchers and rocket engines — allowing room for North Korea to keep other nuclear threats. The latter, using the Oxford comma, implies a series, and does not limit the arsenal to only the launchers and engines.

I’m not certain that a missive of this kind is what will make the difference, but it is certainly more likely to keep the remaining staffers in the now diminished State Department on their toes.

But I’ve reviewed some of Mike Pompeo’s statements. And I worry that commas are not the epicenter of the language problem at the State Department.

Diplomats are adept at making statements that are ambiguous when they need to be and using language to persuade, cajole, and threaten.

But in politics, one of the biggest problems is passive voice — vague statements about things that need to happen, without any indication of who should do them.

And as I’ve written before, Pompeo has a major passive voice problem. Here are a few excerpts from a speech he made:

Post-9/11 measures have been weakened or discarded. A coherent new approach is needed.

The San Bernardino attackers were not flagged, despite their repeated visits to jihadist websites.

[Terrorists] exhibit distinctive behavioral and communications patterns that can be detected—but only if intelligence agencies have the right data and tools to analyze it.

Collection of the contents of specific targets’ communications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has been dumbed down.

What’s needed is a fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities.

Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed.

In the wake of 9/11, surveillance reforms were adopted virtually overnight.

These are aggressive proposals couched in passive language.

The commas are in the right place. But it’s hard to tell who’s supposed to be doing what. That’s a bigger problem than a misplaced comma.

These comments on commas help with written language. But what of commas in speech? For that I must refer you to the final word on the topic, which is the graphic below. To my knowledge, this is not an official State Department document, although it ought to be.

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  1. Now I am really confused because the USAID style guide that I am compelled to use as a USAID contractor requires AP style and yet Pompeo now wants bureaus to use Chicago. What to do? I will stick with AP for now, although I prefer Chicago in the matter of commas! I do wonder if his passive voice is intentional.

  2. As indicated by the U.S. Government Publications Office “Style Manual,” the folks at the State Department should have already been using the so-call Oxford or serial comma–because that manual directs the “official style” for the entire U.S. Government.

    As for the troubled contractor at the U.S. AID, she needs to do what her government bosses tell her to do. There are all sorts of good things that the AP Style Guide addresses well, but the AP doesn’t endorse the Oxford comma UNLESS there is the possibility of confusion in the list of three or more things. She needs to wait until someone provides her with a clear-cut directive.

  3. Yes, we will follow the USAID style guide for now–that is in our contract and is our Bible. Does not matter if I like the Oxford comma or not or if other government departments follow something else. I will have to restrain myself from adding those serial commas!