The Oxford Comma

by | May 21, 2021 | Random Thoughts | 0 comments

Ah, the Oxford comma. Few things have been more divisive in the English-speaking world. I originally posted this on 5 March 2019.

A Little Bit About Me

It has been said that I am something of a grammarian.  A colleague even opined one day in the office that the grammar spectrum is something like this, “There’s wrong.  There’s right, and there’s Rob.”

Important Disclaimer: I do not have an English degree at any level (Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.), but I have been writing for 21+ years and studying the craft that whole time.

When it comes to English Grammar, one would be hard-pressed to find a better book on the subject than Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  I first encountered it in the Fall of 1998…in Dr. Edward Palm’s English 101 class.  There is a supposedly updated version out there, but I haven’t purchased it yet.  True, I believe the edition I referenced first needs no updating…but…you always have to keep current in your industry/career.  That’s why so many certifications now have Continuing Education requirements.

That way, you’re not trying to get an job boasting about your mad skills with 386 processors in a world of Core i3/5/7 and Ryzen chipsets.  Okay, okay…when I encountered someone boasting about their skills with 386’s, it was about seven years ago, but still…the 486 superseded the 386 in 1989.  2012 – 1989 = 23 years.  I’m pretty sure the 386 is older than Taylor Swift.

But I digress.

The Oxford Comma

What is the Oxford Comma?  Wikipedia has an impressive article about it, but the Cliff Notes version (Are Cliff Notes even still a thing?) is that it’s the comma before the list item of a list.  For example: I went to the store to buy bananas, mangoes, cherries, and horseradish.  I have bold-faced the comma in question in the example; it’s right after ‘cherries.’

The Debate

At some point, “learned sages” began arguing that the Oxford (or Harvard) comma is old-fashioned and no longer needed.  Those wanting to be on the forefront, or perhaps the avant-garde, began advocating its obsolescence.  Traditionalists, and possibly anyone who values clear and unambiguous prose, argued that it was not obsolete.  Battle lines were drawn, sieges established, and the writing/grammar communities have been divided on this issue almost to the degree of the USA in the early 1860’s.

(Somewhat) Recent Developments

So, as with so many other parts of Human existence, the Oxford comma is on the way out…right?  I mean, gunpowder made bows obsolete.  Internal combustion engines relegated equestrian skills to the realm of recreation.  That’s just how things work, right?  New replaces old.

Well….maybe not so much.

A good friend for whom I’ve proofread papers, sparking a debate (though not as vitriolic as some on the issue), sent me this link on February 27th, 2019.  The article describes how the lack of an Oxford Comma won dairy drivers in Maine a ten-million-dollar settlement.

The article quotes the judge as saying, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

In my mind, the Oxford Comma is absolutely essential.  Like the judge in the case, I believe it’s necessary to make one’s writing as unambiguous as possible, because communication is literally a two-way street.  Communication cannot exist if one or more parties involved do not understand the information being offered.

Am I cheering and shouting “I told you so?”  No.  I have my opinions, and I’m entitled to them.  They’ve been formed over the years I’ve existed, and I try to be open to new information that might spur me to re-evaluate them.

I try not to approach opinions from the standpoint of “I’m right, and they’re wrong.”  Yes, I have a great amount of conviction for many of my opinions, and I will defend them.  Are my opinions the final ‘truth’ for all mankind?  Good grief, no!  My opinions are right for me, and they only continue to be right for me as long as they continually stand up to evidence.

Case in point: I used to love Avast anti-virus.  I thought it was the best anti-virus you could have.  I have since re-evaluated that opinion and now prefer Emsisoft Antimalware.

Another of my opinions is that we should always strive to be open to new ideas or re-evaluating existing ideas/opinions as new information emerges.

Other Thoughts on Grammar

As I mentioned above, I’ve been writing for 21 years, and that number will keep going up as time passes.  I don’t intend to stop.  I’ve been reading and enjoying reading for much longer, though.

I do not have the words to describe the sheer joy a well-crafted narrative gives me…whether I wrote it or someone else.  Especially someone else, because each individual is his or her harshest critic.  So, with the explosion of the independent author market since the first eReaders came out, I would be lying if I said I don’t have anything to read.  Finding something I want to read is another matter entirely.

Despite what you might guess, given the characterization I wrote of myself in the first section above, I am not an eBook snob.  For me, an eBook is a good read if I enjoyed the story and left wanting more.  Joshua Dalzelle’s Omega Rising is an excellent example.  Amazon tells me I bought it on April 2nd, 2013.  I remember two things from my first read-through of it: (1) the story is great and sets the stage well for a continued series and (2) the formatting was atrocious.  I think he has since updated the book, and the successive books were far, far better in formatting quality.  So, if an eBook has formatting issues or missing commas or what have you, I really don’t care as long as I enjoy the story.

It takes a lot to kick me out of a story.

A case in point: “could of” vs. “could’ve.”  I don’t remember which eBook had this.  I’m afraid the error sticks out in my mind better than the story, which I would argue is a problem for the author.  Readers should have zero problems remembering a story (even if it’s just a fragment), despite the absurd amount of stories available.

Another: “its vs. it’s.”  One’s a possessive.  The other’s a contraction.  There is a difference, believe it or not…but this is so common it was used as an example in The Elements of Style.

The tried and true “there” vs. “they’re” vs. “their.”  This isn’t as common as one might think, at least not in the stories I’ve read…but I have seen it.

A near favorite: “Calvary” vs. “cavalry.”  Calvary refers to the site of Jesus’s crucifixion in Christianity.  Cavalry is a military unit that was typically on horseback.  I don’t have an exact count, but I laugh every time I see a sentence similar to “Just hold on; I’ll bring the calvary.”  Really?  Now, granted…it could’ve just been a typo.  I’ve produced some typos that defy explanation, but when the writer makes the same mistake over and over again, I would argue it comes down to bad information.

Hmmm…I’m pretty sure I have a longer list than this, but genius that I am, I didn’t write them down.  Maybe I should start doing that.


Perfect vs. Good Enough

“So, what you’re saying is that you need to go over a manuscript as many times as it takes to make it perfect, right?”  Nope!  Not even a little bit.  One of my favorite quotes is, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”  Authors could spend $100,000 in proofreaders, and typos and mistakes would still exist in the final copy.

Every published book of any size has typos and mistakes.  They’re like cockroaches; it’s almost impossible to get rid of them.

The key is not to eliminate typos and mistakes but to minimize them.

Besides, given that each of us is our own harshest critic (as I mentioned above), you’ll never publish if you keep striving to have it be perfect.  Your novel could win hundreds of awards around the world and set you and your children up for life from its royalties alone…and you as the author would still see places where “it could have been better” or where “I should really go back and fix that” or…well, you get the idea.

I’m a firm believer in the idea of Perfect vs. Right.  I spent 20 years studying the craft of writing novels, continually revising my pet project as my knowledge grew.  It wasn’t until 2015 – 2016 that I developed a version that “felt right” and ready for publication, but I’ll guarantee you it’s not perfect.

Making a living as an independent author isn’t some arcane secret (note: I did not say it isn’t difficult).  Here’s how it works:

  1. Write the best story you can that readers enjoy.
  2. Publish it.
  3. Engage with your readers.
  4. Learn from your mistakes.
  5. Repeat Steps 1 – 4.

Are those steps easy?  Nope.  Not at all.  Simple?  Not even close.  But that’s really all there is to it.

All right.  That’s enough of the soapbox for today.  If you’re still reading, thank you, and I appreciate your stamina/perseverance.  🙂

It’s time to get back to writing.  I only have 62 to go, and the blasted things won’t write themselves, no matter how much I want them to.  😛

Want to discuss or debate anything I’ve said here?  Feel free to comment or send me a message via the Contact page.  If you want a response, though, I recommend leaving any hate and/or vitriol at the door.


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