The "Oxford comma" explained

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The "Oxford comma" explained

Post by moderntimes » 02 Aug 2015, 17:44

For ages, I've thought that the so-called "Oxford comma" meant adding a comma after the "and" in a list of "equal" items. For example...

She bought red, green, and blue balloons. vs
She bought red, green and blue balloons.

Now for a long time, US usage added the comma before the "and" (1st example sentence) and British usage omitted it. Nowadays, common usage overall is to omit the comma, something that took me quite a while to become accustomed to, as I normally used the comma before "and".

And I also thought, incorrectly, that the "Oxford comma" meant to add it. I was wrong, and you writers need to become acquainted with the new rules for using a comma in a list.

Generally it's this: Omit the comma before the "and" unless the list can be confusing if the comma is deleted. That is actually the "Oxford comma" -- so, normally you'd omit the comma per the 2nd sentence above. But, if you've got a more complex list, such as:

I ate fish and chips, bread and jam, and ice cream.

This is taken from the actual Oxford University guide on grammar and punctuation, and as you can see, the comma prior to the "and" is needed to make sense out of the pairs of items in the list. And this is the "real" Oxford comma usage, and it's pretty much become the standard, both in the US and British stylebooks. So learn it, gang.
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Post by rssllue » 02 Aug 2015, 18:04

I have always used the comma before the and, and thought nothing of it until recently. The one who brought it up is actually a head reporter for the Packers, who talked about it being his pet peeve when he is editing the articles of his staff. He has mentioned it up a few times in his Ask Vic column on their website. I never thought I would get punctuation advice from such an outlet!
Sadly, I still struggle omitting the comma at times since it is so ingrained in my writing. But I am working on it! :)
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Post by moderntimes » 02 Aug 2015, 19:08

Same here -- I have to go over my stuff repeatedly to fix it. Just recently I've been tweaking my 3 novels (all three were contracted for publication) and so I've been adjusting timeline errors and making small changes, including the publisher's stylesheet guidelines, and this includes omitting the comma prior to the "and" in an equal-style list. I know that the publisher's editing staff will find and flag these but I wanted to start out with as much as possible that meets their guidelines so as the books go back and forth between editors and me, there will be a minimum of chaff.

So now I've got to do this, as you do, remember to omit the comma even when, dammit! it makes sense to leave in! Arrgh!
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Post by gali » 02 Aug 2015, 23:52

I never use comma before the and, but I got confused lately due to anther thread about it. Thanks for the heads-up!
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Post by hilarymay » 03 Aug 2015, 10:53

There are some interesting differences, aren't there? I'm from the UK and so don't put the comma before the word "and". I do know a couple of English authors who do this at times though.

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Post by moderntimes » 03 Aug 2015, 12:12

Using a comma before the "and" in a list of equal items had always seemed logical to me but grammar isn't always logical. I'm now having to "unlearn" the rule as I continue to write. But so it goes.

In my writing I often omit commas where they're "supposed" to be anyway. I'm writing a series of modern American private eye novels and my style is very modern and breezy, with deliberate run-on sentences to evoke an increased rhythm in the phrasing. Such techniques are common in modern fiction and I use them accordingly. As my editor once told me, "If you break the rules, do so with style."

Amusingly, I'd finished my 3rd novel is the series and was submitting it to various publishers. I accidentally sent it to a "vanity" (subsidy) house because their name was similar to a legit publisher. And my first chapter came back totally marked up by their "editor" who then said that my writing was full of errors and bad writing, and they recommended an editing service. Naturally this is a scam, the "service" probably the same people. Trick is to send newbie writers back and forth and keep them paying for editing tweaks while dangling a publishing contract under their noses. Even if the contract occurs, the author pays for publishing, which is wrong.

Anyway, my chapter was trounced upon by the vanity house, which in their markup, refused to allow my deliberately incomplete sentences and such. And as you know, incomplete sentences are perfectly okay in modern fiction. For nonfiction or maybe a more literary novel, less so. But for genre fiction, especially a fast-paced mystery? They're fine.

But I am also e-pals with a couple of fairly well known mystery authors, and they've read my first chapters (and liked them) so I emailed them and asked about the sentence structure. Both of them of course said "okay" and that my writing was perfectly in line with modern techniques.

And just a couple weeks, ago, all THREE of my novels were picked up by a legit, non-subsidy publisher, and they'll be publishing all 3 books in both print and e-book format this fall. So I guess that my "poor" writing ability is all right, hey?
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Post by zeldas_lullaby » 05 Aug 2015, 19:16

I always use the comma, I think.

He ran, slid, and landed in the pond.

I'm eating red, green, and yellow apples.

Some people are tall, some people are short, and some people are in between.

Are you saying those examples are wrong?

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Post by moderntimes » 05 Aug 2015, 19:43

I don't think they're wrong because for me, the comma in an equal-item list is logical.

But now, the rules have changed and nobody uses that comma any more. Publishers in both the USA and Britain (and English language editions of books from elsewhere), all omit that comma now.

I'm slowly getting used to it and I guess we all need to eventually, because the publisher will yank it out anyway, sigh.
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Post by PashaRu » 05 Aug 2015, 20:00

I usually stay away from topics like this. It's minutiae. While I respect anyone's right to be as "proper" as he/she feels necessary, splitting hairs over minor issues like this, admittedly, bothers me a bit. And while the correct definition of the Oxford comma may be interesting, I frankly don't care if someone uses it or not. I agree with the initial post in that commas (or other punctuation) should serve the primary purpose of making written text clear and understandable.

A writer who strictly adheres to all of the "proper" rules can be, in my opinion, a good writer. But not a great writer. Because a great writer expands his mind, talents, and writing beyond the artificial and arbitrary boxes and boundaries created by someone else.

Shakespeare, for example, created words and phrases that are still in use today; it's estimated that he contributed several thousand new words to the English language. He turned nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, connected words never before used together, added prefixes and suffixes, and devised completely new words. A stickler-for-the-rules middle school English teacher would have eviscerated his plays and sonnets with the dreaded red pen. Charles Dickens, arguably one of the greatest novelists in the English language, wrote long run-on sentences. Again, too-locked-into-the-rules-for-her-own-good British schoolmarm would have handed him back his paper with multiple errors marked. A remarkable writer in recent times is Annie Proulx (The Shipping News, which won the Pulitzer in 1994). Choppy, incomplete sentences. To sticklers, deserving the dreaded red pen. But writing so good it takes your breath away.

Language is here to serve people, not the other way around. If you (any author) stringently follow the rules, I'll respect you. But that's not terribly difficult to do. If you break them (and do it creatively, "with style," as the above poster noted), I'll admire you. Maybe even envy you. Because you are creative and original. And nothing is off limits - not spelling, punctuation, syntax, capitalization, etc. Of course, this does not justify being sloppy or careless. That's an entirely different matter. And never obscure the meaning. But to use language in new, unique ways (either written or spoken) is beyond good writing. It is great, inspired, and inspiring writing.

Finally, I understand that compromises may need to be made to get published. And that's kind of sad.
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Post by zeldas_lullaby » 05 Aug 2015, 20:11

To Moderntimes: Well, I tend to self-publish, but of course I want everything to be edited correctly! On the other hand, I've read some officially-published books in which the grammar/editing just seemed awful, and this deleted comma might be one of the things I've been picking up on. So I'll probably keep using it, the same way I consistently use the British "pyjamas" because I just love that spelling but I hate the American version! Consistency is key. :-)

To PashaRu: Minutiae is necessary for those of us who self-publish. Just off the top of my head, here's some stuff I've learned since I took up writing: don't capitalize "social studies," or any class that isn't a language. Don't overuse go, say, or walk. Don't overuse exclamation points. Don't overuse italics for emphasis, as most readers know which word in a sentence is being emphasized. Be consistent with vaguely-understood stuff such as ellipses every time you use them. Don't tab; use indents. If you hit enter, you may need to delete a space. Insert a page break for each chapter for Kindle formatting.

I don't want to have to go back in time and relearn all that! I do understand your loathing of minutiae, though; I used to hate staff meetings with a passion, for that exact reason. Also, if a publisher actually wanted me to compromise my sense of proper grammar, he'd hit a square wall of Meg-resistance. (I'm a Taurus. We're incredibly stubborn.)

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Post by moderntimes » 05 Aug 2015, 20:20

Well, Pasha, your comment is excellent and well thought out.

Insofar as compromises to be published, I'd appreciate hearing your personal experience regarding that, because my own experience is that I simply had to adhere to the publisher's style guide. When I wrote for a major newspaper, there was a hard and fast style guide that we all had to follow. It dealt with things like punctuation but also other things, such as the correct spelling of a street name, "Hudson Boulevard" and not "Hudson Street" and so on. And when I wrote engineering specs for the offshore oil industry, there were very rigid rules for not only punctuation but certain terms had to be precisely written. This was because our specs would later be auto-translated for workers in Malaysia or Japan or Honduras or Germany or wherever. And when my articles or short stories were published, only legal things in the articles were vetted and similar changes required. Otherwise I was not made to change anything.

And when my two novels were published, I can attest that besides obvious errors, such as a missing closing quote or a missing period, misspelling a character's name, and so on, the publisher's editors gave me free reign on my writing. And I'm a nobody. So please let us know your own personal experiences with being published.

As for punctuation and the Oxford comma, it's no big deal. I learn to omit the comma and go ahead and write my 4th novel. Such changes are trivial.

But I do also tell you that I DO break the strict rules of formal punctuation all the time. Were I writing a formal essay for a literary magazine or an article for a national magazine (both of which I've done, for pay), that would be different.

But I'm writing a series of modern American private detective thrillers and so the pace and rhythm of my stories is brisk and I often deliberately omit commas to invoke a feeling of rushing toward a conclusion and to push the narrative. (as I just did in that sentence) Some of my characters make grammatical errors in their dialogue but not a lot. It's essential to not slather on the bad English too much or it will quickly become a 1930s bad mystery movie. I have many incomplete sentences and do that deliberately. And my editors have NEVER asked that these sort of things be changed. That's stylistic for many modern action-oriented novels and although it might be flagged in an essay for a formal literary magazine, it's common practice in a mystery thriller. As my editor once told me, "If you break the rules, do so with style."

What is annoying for me is to sift through all 3 novels once again before formal submission, nearly a quarter million words, to tweak the text so that it's as good as I can make it. Deleting the comma in a list is easy with a find/replace in MS-Word. But I really did find some chaff among the wheat, too. I overused the word "then" in my narrative and it bogged down the pace. For example:

He picked up the knife and then put it into an evidence bag. vs
He picked up the knife, put it into an evidence bag.

Which is also technically wrong, as it asks for a semicolon instead of a comma and yes I know this, but I really, really hate semicolons and vow to never use one in my novels, ha ha.

And Zelda, I'm just as stubborn for a different reason, being a Virgo, and not only is everyone else wrong but I have to explain why to them in long expository lectures. heh heh

Self published or not, we authors must use correct English most of the time and not overuse things like exclamation points and italics, you're totally correct!!!!
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Post by zeldas_lullaby » 05 Aug 2015, 20:31

HA HA HA!! Thanks, Modern Times! Virgo, oh my!

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Post by GandalfTheFey » 05 Aug 2015, 22:52

Seriously?! I also always thought the first of those two lists concerning balloons utilized the oxford comma. WOW! I am seriously shocked, completely frank and not joking (or Sally).

I wrestled with the oxford comma for years, until I started listening to Vampire Weekend and heard this song... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcloWhudu8A

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Post by moderntimes » 06 Aug 2015, 11:27

I thought the same, Gandy, but I was wrong. I took the real explanation straight from the Oxford Style Guide, which my publisher uses, except for spelling and quotations, being an American publisher.

Anyway, the explanation in my first post is the right one, per the actual guide. Who wouda thunk it?

-- 06 Aug 2015, 13:36 --

And also, anyone who wants the "official" Oxford University Style Guide, PM me with your email and I'll send you the PDF.

This guide is succinct and well written, and up to date with all the latest style info for typography, such as comma placement, dashes, ellipses, etc. and it's an easy to understand guide, not thick or muddy at all.

It's the "bible" for British-preferred style. US writers such as I will need to modify the guide's specs in accordance with things like quotes. As you know Brit style for quotes and quotes within is this:

I told her, 'Sharon said, "I don't care!" and I agree.' versus US style of:
I told her, "Sharon said, 'I don't care!' and I agree."

But otherwise, the guide is excellent for any English writer. Of course, depending on your preference or the recommendation of your publisher / editor, if you're writing American style, you'll likely use the Chicago Manual of Style (published by the Univ of Chicago) or similar.
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Post by zeldas_lullaby » 06 Aug 2015, 13:45

I've never been good at using style guides. I never know how to find the info I want in them. For that reason, I always turn to the internet for general grammar questions and such.

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