Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?

Being a professional editor is a lot like having an acquired brain injury. You know that there was a time when grammar and punctuation errors didn’t bother you, but that time has long passed and you can’t actually comprehend what that felt like any more. Now you live in a dismal prison where the bars are built from noun-verb confusion, and no-one around you understands that you can’t enjoy an item on the dinner menu because the restaurant spelt a plural with an apostrophe and now all the food tastes like cardboard and illiteracy. Eventually the only options for escape are self-trepanation, a shooting spree or gimlets for breakfast.


Anyway, I edit and publish books (mostly maths textbooks) for a living, and it beats digging ditches, so I’m not gonna complain too much. But as a result of my job, and of gaining my editing qualification a few years ago (yeah, bitches, I’m diplomaed up in this motherfucker), I see grammar errors everywhere – not just in manuscripts, but in published works that haven’t had the attention they need.

So, in the hopes that it might help you with your work-in-progress, your university essay or your lonely hearts personal ad, here are a bunch of things that make me wince when I see them.

The Oxford comma: Technically the use of the Oxford or serial comma is not wrong, it’s just that it sucks. If you don’t know what it is (and why would you), it’s the use of a final comma before the conjunction in a list of items – e.g. ‘one, two, three, four, and five’. Attitudes differ on the serial comma, with most English and Australian authorities advising it only be used to avoid confusion when the last item includes a conjunction (‘we offer steak, risotto, and fish and chips), and most American authorities advising it be used every time, because apparently they’ve been huffing paint.

For my part, I loathe it; it has an innate stuffiness in it, like an after-dinner speaker at a Rotary club pausing for effect before dropping his last bon mot, or indeed ordering the last item on the menu. It bleeds energy from the sentence, like a speedbump on a suburban street, and dribbles into the eye like birdshit. I don’t even like to use it to avoid ambiguity; I’d rather rewrite the sentence, or at worst replace the final conjunction with an ampersand to cut out an ‘and’.

You can use it if you want to. I guess. But I’ll judge you.

Other comma errors: But while the Oxford comma comes down to a matter of  taste, there are other uses of the comma that are simply incorrect. People tend to use them like pauses in speech, and while that can work sometimes, it’s really not what the little squiggle is used for. Commas lift and separate, like a push-up bra – they chain clauses together, and they break phrases into clauses. They quantify the elements of the sentence and let you move them around as building blocks. They’re not there to mark where you take a breath, and that’s probably the most common way I see them misused

Broken appositives: The other way is when a writer makes a mistake with an appositive phrase. That’s not when you say ‘well done, mate’; it’s a phrase that further defines another, usually like an aside, and marked out with commas – see how I did it with ‘usually like an aside’ – or dashes (see how I did it just then). Or with parentheses, if you’re Stephen King. Appositives are common, but so are mistakes, the most obvious being not separating them from the other phrase. Witness this classic example:

I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse.

I helped my uncle jack off a horse.

Subtle, but important. Alternatively, writers start the appositive but don’t finish it, so the initial comma is left dangling and the circle is unclosed. This can create a situation where the definition contradicts itself:

Right: Available online, or in bookstores, for $9.95.

Wrong: Available online, or in bookstores for $9.95.

That creates doubt – is it available online for a different price than it is in bookstores?

(Actually, the commas aren’t needed at all in that first one, but it still works for the sake of example.)

Colons and semicolons: You know, I’m not even going to scratch the surface of how these get misused; I’ll be here all night. As you can see from the previous sentence, semicolons link two interdependent clauses, with more distance than a comma but less than a full stop. They’re tricky, I know, but the key thing is that they’re a bridge between clauses, rather than a spot-weld. They’re not full stops; you can turn a semi-colon into a full stop (as my White Wolf editors used to do, much to my chagrin), but that makes the resulting sentence pair bumpy and bitty. Nor are they commas; don’t use them to separate items in a list, unless each item is a sentence in itself.

Now, consider colons: see how the clause after the mark refers back to the clause before the mark. Colons are one-way gates in a sentence, meant to direct and push the reader into the next clause, without the interdependence of a semicolon. Again, they’re not full stops, they’re not commas, and if you’re putting them into dialogue, you may want to listen to yourself talk.

Ellipsis abuse: Two things. First, an ellipsis is three dots. Not four, or five, or twelve. This isn’t up for debate. Secondly, an ellipsis is a gap, an omission, a trailing off… …or a fade-in from silence. Not a comma, not a full stop, not a separating device; ellipses are the loosest and messiest of connectors, which is why teenagers and bad game-fic writers use them to piggyback seven utterly dissociated things into one paragraph and then claim that that’s how people speak. Which, even if true, doesn’t make it good. Even if your character is stopping, starting and pausing throughout their dialogue, don’t just chain every snippet together with ellipses, or it’ll look like your paragraph has chicken pox.

Gerunds aren’t verbs: And finally, the last thing I see all too frequently is writers confusing verbs with gerunds – that is, verbs with ‘ing’ stapled to the end. Gerunds start life as verbs, sure, but after the transplant surgery when the ing is stitched on and a vestigial letter or two is shaved off, the pink and shivering thing left is a noun, or possibly an adjective depending on how you use it. You shiver, you don’t shivering; you write, you don’t writing. But you are shivering, he is writing; the verb is the quiet, semi-visible is/are/was of identity, not the loud and colourful gerund. And it’s cool to use them, but be aware that a sentence with only a gerund, rather than a verb, is a fragment – and without a strong verb, you’re describing a still image of an action, rather than communicating the action itself.

I could go on about other, increasingly rarefied things like pluperfect forms, conjunctions and participles, but this post is already too long and holy fuck I’m even boring myself at this point.

But here’s the most important thing – fuck all of that if necessary (except for the multi-dot ellipsis; that shit’s just wrong and dumb). Grammar is a tool, punctuation is a tool, and a craftsperson needs to know how to use her tools; she also needs to know when to down tools and change the car tyre with a spork rather than a spatula, because seriously, that would look fucking cool.

When you know what you’re doing, you can break the rules, not because you can’t be bothered following them but because you know you can create specific effects by colouring outside the lines. One of the major influences on my writing style was Kathe Koja, whose 1990s horror novels (Bad Brains, Skin, Strange Angels) were a fevered blur of commas, fragments and semi-colons scattered like breadcrumbs across the page; they evoked a desperate energy, a sick momentum that told the reader that things were just too fucked up for her protagonists for the rules of grammar to contain their emotions and their problems.

Such a great, fucked-up book

I mean, hell, I just used the Oxford comma in a line in Arcadia, and I dithered a bit about it, but in the end I kept it because it had a specific effect – the commas overtly chained a string of actions together, the last of which had no connection to the rest; by using a serial comma to add that last element, it drew a connection where none existed and let the reader a little further into the mind of the narrator, who doesn’t draw distinctions between her actions in the same way as the rest of us. Or at least that what I hope it’ll do.

So go nuts. Pull off crazy BMX punctation tricks. Fire ellipses into the eyes of your enemies and steal their wallets as they rub the sand from their sockets. If you can do it, you’re a hero.

If you can’t, though, your editor will eventually be found running naked through the streets with your severed head on a pike. True story. So be careful out there.

14 replies on “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”

Great post. I just feel the need to speak up in defence of the Oxford comma.

I’m one of those people who does give a fuck about it. (And I love that song, BTW.) I’m Australian, so apparently I’m not supposed to be all hung up on it, but every time someone edits my writing and “corrects” it by removing the Oxford comma, I feel the intense desire to stab them in the eye with a spork. And then go and change a tyre with it, because you’re right: that’s just freakin’ cool.

Fragments. Nothing wrong with them. Got their purposes. But it’s about purpose. Their usage. Their function. How annoying. They. Can. Be.

The serial comma, on the other hand… I won’t judge you for using it. Or at least, I won’t tell you I’m judging you. Which is close enough, surely.

I was freaked out when the White Wolf style guide, back in the day, said a trailing sentence ended with an ellipsis and then a full stop, to make four dots in total. Weird, man.

Yeah, that was freaky – but it turns out that that’s standard usage in America. At some point the editors over there just started making shit up to distinguish themselves from their English compatriots. Kinda like teenagers wearing CHRISTIAN DEATH T-shirts to a wedding.

On the other hand, Justin Achilli did break me of a terrible habit – writing ‘try and’ when I mean ‘try to’. Now I watch for that obsessively, and annoy people when I correct them for it.

I’m sorry. You react to poor punctuation the same way I feel like my eyes are being reamed out of my skull by gappy kerning and horrible, often American spelling.

Except there is no right or wrong as regards kerning (a typesetting construct that allows creative directors to punish you endlessly) or American spelling. It just burns me is all. Burns.

Oh, bad kerning annoys me too, but it has to be pretty egregious before I notice it.

When I do, though, it makes me want to take a dump on the typesetter’s Mac and scream ‘NOW CLEAN IT UP!’

I need to learn to relax more.

The Oxford Comma sounds awfully pretentious, especially the way you talk about it. In some parts of the world, it’s fashionable to sneer at the Harvard comma. Either way, your argument comes down to “Sure, it clears-up ambiguity, but I don’t like it so don’t use it.” I’m a fan and fervent adherent of the Serial Comma. 😛

I like your other thoughts on abuse of commas and other punctuation. Gerunds in headings make me twitch.

As for American spelling, I can’t stand how they’re mangled our language. I’m on record as saying that when I get my hands on a a time-machine, Melvil Dewey is the first on my hit-list (I figure others will be squabbling to knock-off Hitler, his parents, grandparents, and so on). I’m also not amused that the Wright Brothers refer to an areoplane in their patent, yet the word was corrupted.

When it comes to kerning errors, the word for that is keming.

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