We nearly came to blows…over a comma?

My son and I had it out the other day. I don’t remember which of us began yelling first, but what started as an innocent conversation took less than a minute to escalate to an all-out screaming match. If our neighbors were unlucky enough to hear us, they probably guessed we were arguing about money, or maybe my son’s use of my car, or some “normal” subject matter that causes parents and adult children to clash.

But we weren’t. The topic that caused our red faces and clenched fists? Serial commas, otherwise known as the “Oxford comma.”

Given my heretofore stated passion about grammar and its rules, you would probably assume I’m a big proponent of the Oxford comma, but let me clarify my feelings about commas. In certain types of writing (e.g., legal pleadings and briefs, contracts, things of that nature), a comma is a BIG DEAL. A missing or added comma can completely change the meaning of the sentence, so the author must be specific and purposeful in using and placing commas.  The same thing with certain forms of academic writing and journalism. But fiction?

Let’s think about this for a minute. A “wrong” comma in fiction isn’t going to cause a contractual default, or start a war (well, except maybe in my house).  At worst, incorrect comma usage or placement in a piece of fiction will cause confusion with the reader, and as I’ve said before, it’s our job, as writers, to know when that can happen, and to avoid it.

To me, the hard and fast rule for commas when writing fiction is this: Use them judiciously when needed for sentence clarity.  Aside from its more mechanical uses, I also think of a comma in fiction as a pacing tool. I once worked with a woman who knew little about rules. She punctuated by sound. She’d read a sentence out loud, and when her voice paused, she’d stick in a comma. I thought it was funny at the time, but now I think she was on to something, and I often make my comma decisions (in fiction) by the rhythm of the sentence.

Now, on to the Oxford comma. According to oxforddictionaries,com:

“The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.”

I understand the rule. It gives each component of the series its own special place in the sentence. It prevents the reader from incorrectly lumping the words together. It makes perfect sense to me. I just don’t know that it’s absolutely, 100-percent needed unless you’re referring to a  more complex listing, one using  multi-word phrasing, modifiers, appositives, or other construction that could cause confusion. Here’s a simplified example:

Sally’s favorite colors are fire-engine red, oyster-shell pink, and brown.

Without the comma before “and brown,” the reader could be confused into thinking one of Sally’s favorite colors is “oyster-shell pink and brown.” Maybe. In this case, I would keep the comma there just to prevent confusion.

But if I removed the unit modifiers, would I need the Oxford comma?

Sally’s favorite colors are red, pink and brown.

I think most people would understand that “pink and brown” is not a color in and of itself. So to me, it’s perfectly clear without the comma. By the same token, adding the comma doesn’t take away clarity or add ambiguity, so it’s fine with the comma, too.

If I were editing this example, I would let the author choose. His or her preference might have to do with pacing after all.  It might be the way the author “hears” the sentence while reading. For that reason, I’m happy to let the author be happy with his/her choice.

Some people (who shall remain nameless, but who know who they are) aren’t so flexible. Some people would insist on that third comma, always, just because of some typesetting rule that has survived who-knows-how-many decades!

Some people might be surprised, in fact, to learn that Oxford itself has relaxed its own famous rule about the serial comma, at least a smidgen. It seems now the main concern, aside from avoiding confusion and ambiguity, is to be consistent. (I kid you not! I read it on the internet…somewhere. Google it yourself if you don’t believe me!)

In any event, my son and I have since mended ways. We’ve agreed to agree to disagree on this one. If nothing else, we’ll make for nicer (quieter) neighbors!

Happy writing, all.

Words matter.

One thought on “We nearly came to blows…over a comma?

  • Sorry to be the cause of fireworks and I’m still so very, very glad you are my editor, friend and publisher.

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