Tag Archives: Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation

Serial commas

serial commas meme, martha stewartCommas: those little morsels of goodness that few authors understand. In general, serial commas are used to resolve ambiguity. When we have a list in a sentence, not using commas can create some interesting situations.

Comma use is part of what we call ‘style:’

  1. Google says: “Style is the way writing is dressed up (or down) to fit the specific context, purpose, or audience. Word choice, sentence fluency, and the writer’s voice — all contribute to the style of a piece of writing.” 
We use a style to ensure consistency in our phrasing and punctuation, and make it easier for the reader to enjoy the book. The books I use to help me with that are Elements of Style, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation.   In my opinion, as an avid reader, the style that always uses the serial comma is less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the legendary book dedication often attributed to Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, because Ayn Rand and God can be read as meaning that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. That is actually rather hilarious because Ayn Rand is famously atheist in her beliefs. (I’m not qualified to say whether or not God believes in Ayn Rand.)

Lets-eat-GrandmaHowever, a comma before and removes the ambiguity: To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

But lists can also be written in other ways that eliminate the ambiguity without introducing the serial comma, such as using other punctuation, or none, to introduce or delimit them. For example, in the following manner:

To God, Ayn Rand and my parents. Hemingway used and in place of commas in much of his work, and it was quite readable.

A famous example reportedly collected by Nielsen Hayden was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about Merle Haggard:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.  This could be taken to mean that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard’s ex-wives.

Although Merle Haggard has been married five time, he was never married to either Kris Kristofferson or Robert Duvall,  and a serial comma would resolve that inaccuracy:

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall.

chicago manual of styleI’ve seen people launch into rants  against serial commas, claiming that it’s too many and looks awful.

I’m just going to say that argument  is hogwash.

Who are your writing for, yourself or an unknown reader who may one day buy your book?

If you are writing for your own eyes only, do whatever you like.

But if you expect others to enjoy your work, you need to think about the reader: consider what is going to make your work easy for the reader to understand what you are saying.

Other aspects of commas may escape me at times, but the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is one I adhere to in my own work, and heartily wish other authors would too.





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Dear Sir or Madam

GerundsThere are times when the vagaries of modern English (previous error in capitalization edited by Stephen Swartz) get in the way of reading what could be a great novel.  Some weeks I see six or seven books, both indie and traditionally published, before I find one book worth reviewing for my book review blog, Best in Fantasy.

As authors, we are all overcome with the urge to shout to the world, to immediately show the world our precious child, to rush to publish it now.  It is the rare author who can write prose that is fit to read in his first draft–if that author actually exists, I’ve never read his work.

For the indie, this is fatal.

This is why I highly recommend hiring a reputable editorial service to go over your manuscript, even if you plan to submit it to a publisher. After all, why not submit the best work you can, rather than risk being stuck in the slush pile?

An editor will have several reference manuals at his/her hand, and will help you realize your vision, whittling away at the block of granite you gave birth to and love so much, carving away the unnecessary and extraneous words and cliches  until the book emerges in all its glory.

honorificsWhen I am editing, I refer to The Chicago Manual of Style, the Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, and of course, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. As I have been through the process of being edited and hate that horrible feeling of being called to task on silly things, I often refer to these books when I am second guessing myself in my own work.

What are the silly things, you ask?  They are things we learned in grammar school but forgot as we grew older and didn’t use them.  Small things like when to capitalize an honorific title, and when not to–something that crops ups regularly in my work as I often write in a medieval setting.

I’ve found it helpful to use the control -f (find) function in WORD to locate every possible mangling I might have made of a particular word. Then I look at and replace each instance on an individual basis. (NEVER click replace all!)

KinshipConsistency is important, so  we must know when to capitalize titles and honorifics–words like king, and majesty, or even lord. Also, when to capitalize familial titles such as father, mother, son and aunt.  If you are determined to do it wrong, at least have your roommate ensure that you have done it that way throughout the entire manuscript, rather than sometimes one way and sometimes another, which is the normal, natural way to write a first and even second draft.

Editors not only correct grammar, they check for consistency. They are worth their weight in gold. They’re more important than the fine artwork for the cover, more critical than the catchy blurb. We live in the wild west of the publishing business, and we find ourselves doing whatever we can on the cheap to get our book published. DON’T skimp in this area, if you value your reputation. Once you have published, it’s a pain in the backside to unpublish, have it edited, reformat it, and go through the launch all over again. Remember, we see what we meant to write, not what is actually there.

But you don’t have to listen to me–experience is the great humiliator.


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