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If the publication you are proofing for uses the serial comma, and an essay you're proofing includes a quotation from a biography that does not use a serial comma, is it permissible to silently add serial commas for readability?

The relevant rule in The Chicago Manual of Style (13.7.5) explains:

Obvious typographic errors may be corrected silently (without comment or sic; see 13.59), unless the passage quoted is from an older work or a manuscript source where idiosyncrasies of spelling are generally preserved.

In my case it is not.

Obviously this is ultimately up to the editor. The essay is a work of history and literary criticism.

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Permissible according to whom? If you mean permissible according to Chicago Manual, you have answered your own question. Per Chicago Manual, direct quotes must reproduce exactly not only the wording but the spelling, capitalization, and internal punctuation of the original. Serial comma (or lack thereof) is not an obvious typographical error. Therefore it's not something Chicago Manual permits you to 'correct' silently. –  MετάEd Mar 9 '13 at 18:34
    
Actually Chicago is not as direct and clear on all the issues you've raised as your comment implies. It is absolutely clear on wording (13.7), which "should be reproduced exactly." It then lists six "permissible" changes to quotations. It does not say whether there might be other permissible changes, and this seems to me to be purposeful. (It does not say only six permissible changes.) This seems to me to be something Chicago does frequently, as its editors know it is not possible to imagine every issue an editor will encounter when preparing a manuscript for publication. –  Dave Mar 9 '13 at 19:03
    
Personal opinion - I've never used Chicago - but 'to improve readability' looks to me like a camel's nose with a big red flag painted on it. You may have been entrusted with responsibility for improving your author's readability, but you certainly have not been entrusted with that responsibility by your author's source. Your responsibility toward the source is to ensure that your author has quoted the source's work accurately. –  StoneyB Mar 9 '13 at 20:50
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This is the old 'accuracy' vs 'readability / understandability' issue; some people still claim that the Bible one uses has to be the KJV. However, translations are widely known to be bound to have differences from the original scripts; if 'readability improvements' are deemed advisable, it must be made clear exactly what these are. Bibles often include alternative possible interpretations, and, where modern idioms are substituted, mention of the older wording, with explanatory comments. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 9 '13 at 21:26
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I am a big fan of the serial comma, and I think that it provides necessary precision in instances where a lack of punctuation might lead to misinterpretation of which entries near the end of the series go with which. But style guides that typically do not use the serial comma make exceptions to handle such instances. Thus, for example, The Associated Press Stylebook (2002) says:

IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

As this handling of commas in series indicates, the circumstances under which the AP style guidelines advise a writer to omit the serial comma do not raise issues of readability or understandability at all. Rather, they fall into a narrow area where inclusion or omission of the comma is simply a matter of style.

Consequently, opposing that approach in a situation like yours, where serial-comma-less quoted material appears in the midst of text that follows The Chicago Manual of Style in preferring the serial comma, is not a matter of correcting misleading or ambiguous punctuation decisions, but of imposing one publisher's house style on material from elsewhere that (presumably consistently) followed another style. In my opinion, MetaEd is correct in saying that such alterations exceed Chicago's mandate to correct obvious typographic errors.

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