Seventy-Five Years of Style

By Nathan Cummings ’17, intern in Publications

The “Late Antique” period is capitalized, but “late antiquity” is not. And the ever-controversial Oxford comma, which appears at the end of any list with more than two terms, is sacrosanct. Does all of this make sense?

Over the past two months, I’ve been familiarizing myself with these various idiosyncrasies. Taken together, they comprise the Dumbarton Oaks house style, a set of standards for writing that have accumulated over the research institute’s seventy-five-year history. As an intern in the publications department, my main job over the summer is to copyedit and design the 2014–15 annual report, the latest in a series stretching back to the institute’s founding in 1940. Each report is essentially an institutional “yearbook,” detailing the various happenings and changes of a given academic year at Dumbarton Oaks. Flip through their pages, and you live out each year in brief, as symposia, lectures, conversations, names, and faces flicker before your eyes.

The appearance of the Dumbarton Oaks Annual Report  has changed quite a bit over the years.

The appearance of the Dumbarton Oaks Annual Report has changed quite a bit over the years.

My second job is complementary to my first. I excavate the house style’s various quirks in grammar and punctuation from prior reports and Dumbarton Oaks publications, and then copy them onto a Word document for future reference. The goal in making this new, official Dumbarton Oaks house style guide is to codify a set of guidelines that had previously existed only in the minds of the department’s editors. Ideally, anyone should able to quickly reference this new style guide when editing texts for publications, saving time and ensuring that all writing produced here is set to the same precise specifications.

At certain points during the summer, I’ve found myself questioning this venture. Copyediting, after all, can be a brutal process, especially for an outside observer such as myself. The texts I edit aren’t just dry summaries: they’re the distilled essences of peoples’ experiences at Dumbarton Oaks, filled with all the individual memories, personalities, and emotions that give the institution its unique character. Frequently, I’ve found myself pruning an author’s text for clarity and conformity, only to find that his or her individual voice has been drowned out by the house style’s fine-tuned formalism. Is this an acceptable price for consistency?

In trying to answer this question, I began to consider the nature of Dumbarton Oaks itself. After seventy-five years, it’s grown in ways that would have been inconceivable in 1940. One academic department (Byzantine Studies) has become three. Collections are now housed both physically and online. New outreach programs have led to amazing opportunities for rising scholars such as myself. Yet, after reading Dumbarton Oaks’ very first annual report—published in 1950, after ten years as a research institute—I was struck not only by the differences I found, but also by the similarities. There are still concerts in the Music Room, and symposia in the gardens. Most importantly, the culture of intellectual curiosity and devotion to the humanities has remained strong, seventy-five years on.

In the end, Dumbarton Oaks’ written “voice” is neither a fixed point nor a transient state. It is a heterogeneous collage, influenced by scholars and staff from all over the world, yet also carrying traces of the institution’s long academic history. When people from different nationalities, backgrounds, and academic traditions engage in dialogue under a common institutional identity, the compromise can yield astounding results. Taking my cues from this, I’ve tried to strike a similar balance in my own copyediting work: doing my best to preserve individual writing styles, while also unifying them under the house style’s broader standard. As with any editing work, the key is discretion: learning to correct when necessary, and accommodate elsewhere.

And even with the house style applied, there is still ample room for personalities to live and breathe on the page. One of my favorite lecture titles from this year comes from the Pre-Columbian Studies department: Thomas Killion’s “Elvis Sighted in Classic Period Veracruz: Convergence of Maize God Imagery and a Late Twentieth-Century Pop Icon’s Coiffure.” If Elvis can make an appearance in the annals of Dumbarton Oaks, the institution’s future must be truly unlimited.

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