Monday, November 13, 2017

All Hail the Oxford Comma

Q: Grammar – everyone’s gotta do it. How important is grammar and what resources do you use to make sure you’re on top of it? When do you break the rules?

 - from Susan

I was in a writing group once in which one writer had a terrific story idea, a historical setting that was engaging, and a cast of characters we loved. But she was afflicted with the worst case of run on sentence structure I’ve ever seen. And worse, she couldn’t see that, seemed not to know what a run on sentence was or why it bothered the rest of us so much, slapping us out of the narrative she was trying to create. After all, we knew what she meant, right? Eventually she hired a private editor, but he had no more luck and what could have been a successful mystery novel died on the vine. No agent got past the first couple of pages.

So, how important is grammar? Very. Grammar helps us understand what the writer is trying to say, helps frame the thoughts and make sense of the actions being described.  As a staunch proponent of the Oxford comma, I am amazed that contemporary editors and authors are so willing to ignore the perfect case made in Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I stumble over misplaced commas, the lack of them in introductory clauses, the excessive ones sort of thrown in for good measure here and there. (I do that myself sometimes in first drafts and have to be vigilant in exterminating them later.) Some grammar mistakes are so egregious that I’m shocked they made it past an editor, if there even was an editor.

The core of grammar’s importance isn’t perfection. It isn’t being prissy or superior. It’s making sense, communicating precisely what we intend to say. Which is why it’s okay to break the rules on occasion. (Notice I just did?) We use incorrect grammar for emphasis, to break up the monotony of sentence structure, and to add rhythm and style to our writing. We use it in dialogue to help create and reinforce an individual’s character.

Grammar is a writer’s friend. I think it’s more than a practical tool. I believe it’s a paintbrush, a musical instrument, a magic box that can bring a story alive for readers.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss 

Better Punctuation in 30 Minutes a Day, by Ceil Cleveland


catriona said...

I'm not a fan of the Oxford comma. It doesn't come naturally to me when writing and it makes me stumble when I'm reading. But house style sometimes mean that I have to accept them when my editor adds them. But clarity? That,I'm a fan of. How many grammar rules'd I just break?

Susan C Shea said...

Enough to make the point, Catriona! But, seriously, don't you ever get tangled in meaning without that last comma in a string of words or phrases? It's up to the writer, I guess, to make sure that string doesn't contain anything that could cause a wrong interpretation. Next time I come across one in a book, I'm going to write it down and share it.

Unknown said...

Well said and heartily agree. As for the Oxford comma, I use it, but agree with Catriona that it doesn't sound natural, and if I had a choice I'd do away with it wherever it doesn't create ambiguity. In fact how I usually get around that is by rewriting. More on commas tomorrow...

catriona said...

Seriously. I get tangled because of it. I fall off the end of the sentence because I'm expecting more. But I don't get exercised about it anymore.