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O’Neil: Blink and you’ll miss it

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There were 83 Oxford commas in my honors thesis. I know because I took them all out.

Anyone who has spent time in The Daily’s production rooms (the Panama Mall-adjacent original or the virtual variant) will tell you that our AP Style compliance vis-à-vis Oxford commas (read: we don’t use them) is as hotly contested a newsroom debate topic as they come. But our copy editors rule with an iron fist, and so out they come, every last one, every night. 

For several years this troubled me. The first time I stepped foot in the Daily building — rollout announcement in one hand, mimosa swiftly placed in the other by an anonymous upperclassman — I did so an Oxford comma loyalist. This was a principled devotion, reflected not only in my written work but also in social media bios and the like, where “Oxford comma enthusiast” took the third spot in a triad of self-descriptors, always partitioned by two commas plus a conjunction. 

My first editors painstakingly removed each one (in suggestion mode, despite not being mere suggestion at all) on my Google Doc article submissions. (It was an intensive task — by now you may have picked up on the fact that brevity and concision are not my strong suits, to the chagrin of every single person I’ve worked with in my four years at the paper.)

A year and a half ago, when I began the work that would become my thesis project, I littered it with Oxford commas. My inability to write sentences that don’t meander incessantly and my attachment to parallel structure conspired to make the paper something of an Oxford comma breeding ground. And with no copy editors or Daily higher-ups to check me, they endured the revision process.

And then The Daily’s newly-elected editor-in-chief Charlie Curnin, misguided as he was, asked me to run the show with him in Vol. 258. And suddenly The Daily’s zealous Oxford comma removal was under my purview. Night after night, for seven months, we reviewed and approved coverage of a truly mind-boggling year. We replaced words, reframed context, restructured narratives. We ended each day proud of our staff’s tireless drive to serve our community and their relentless pursuit of the truth. Along the way, we scrapped the commas.

By April, when it came time to submit the thesis to which I’d become so attached, sentences I’d agonized over and revised a dozen times suddenly felt clunky and disjointed. So I made a choice.

I won’t say I didn’t wince a bit as I found-and-replaced my way to an Oxford comma-free project. But it felt clean. Crisp. Neat. I could see where the powers that be were coming from. (Turns out the guys at the AP know a thing or two about clean writing.) 

I couldn’t tell you when or how it happened. Somewhere along the way — between drooling on myself at the kitchen table while the tech team debugged the magazine in the middle of the night, churning out p-sets while waiting for ever-past-deadline ASSU coverage, brainstorming terrible icebreakers and stealing Treehouse tortilla chips out of a greasy paper bag at production — at some point, The Daily seeped into the rest of my life. (And not just because I’ve lived with both of this year’s editors-in-chief.) This place, these people, this part of my life — they took hold, put down roots. And I didn’t notice until I was pulling commas out of 130 pages of political theory at two in the morning. 

That’s how it works. The lessons, the changes, the tiny everyday transformations, at The Daily and also at Stanford — they sneak up on you. You think you know where you’re headed in life until that one WAYS requirement changes your whole trajectory. You think your achievements define your worth until the best friends you’ve ever had show you what really matters. You think your sadness and angst and grief are yours alone to bear until the people you’d do anything for show up again and again to prove they’d do the same. Blink and it’s over: Somewhere along the way you became the person you never thought you’d be. Maybe that person has let go of the Oxford comma, and maybe (probably) the changes are far more profound. Maybe you’re still working through what they all mean, and maybe that process never ends.

***

Back in the fall of 2019, when I clawed my way into (marginal) relevance as The Daily’s lifestyle editor for the second time, I warned incoming frosh that their first year here would later play back like a “blur of undifferentiated chaos.” I pitched The Grind, and The Daily at large, as a place where we could make sense of it all, documenting and keeping scores and running analyses on our respective Stanford Experiences™ as they progressed. Nearly two years later, I stand by the “blur of chaos” assessment, but I want to use my goodbye column to amend my tenor. Your Stanford experience will be chaotic, messy, overwhelming in the best and worst ways. Let it.

Let yourself blink. Let yourself breathe and take in what’s in front of you without wondering how it fits into the bigger picture. Let things go undocumented, and know that the value that you take away from here won’t be something you can quantify or put into words or meta-analyze in a Grind article.

Let yourself be changed, and change others, and change this place, without keeping a running tally. 

You might fail — and bounce back. You might fall in love — and out of it. You might stumble upon opportunities you never knew existed and discover dreams you never knew you had. You might be surprised by what you learn about yourself.

And someday, after everything — the late nights and early mornings, the weekends you can barely remember and exams you’d prefer not to, the tears of relief and joy and anger and righteous indignation — if you’re really, really lucky, you might look back and realize that you miss it.

I already do.

Contact Jackie O’Neil at joneil ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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Jackie O'Neil '21 is The Daily's Vol. 259 staff development director and the former executive editor for Vol. 258 and managing editor of The Grind for Vols. 255 and 256. She's a Richmond, Virginia native studying political science, psychology and ethics. Contact her at joneil 'at' stanforddaily.com.