Tag Archives: the Chicago Manual of Style

#amwriting: Commas

Commas and their usage have arisen in my conversations with clients again lately, so I felt it was time to dust off a piece I wrote  last year on managing them. If you have seen this post already, there is nothing new here–commas and their usage don’t evolve with our changing language.

Since the usage of commas is slow to evolve,  why are they so difficult to figure out? And conversely, why do some people get so jacked up over misplaced commas?

The rules are a little confusing at first because there are several exceptions. Remember, for the casual reader, misplaced commas are like road signs gone rogue–one minute everything is fine and the next you are going the wrong way down a one way street and don’t know how you got there.

Commas and the rules for their use exist for a reason, and if we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

I am a decent structural editor, but I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about commas.

However, I do know some things:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the narrative differently.
  3. Do not put a comma after a conjunction. If needed, commas go before conjunctions.

Commas are the rules of the road for writing. They are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Readers expect to find their pauses between clauses and commas are sometimes the signifiers of those pauses.

One rule I had to unlearn the first time I sent my work to a professional line editor:

  1. Do not place a comma before ‘because’ unless the information that follows is necessary to the sentence.

What? That’s not what I was taught in school!

The Chicago Manual Online gives this example (and I quote):

He didn’t run, because he was afraid.

He didn’t run because he was afraid.

In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary. The main thing is that he didn’t run, and the reason is incidental. The second sentence, which omits the comma, is unclear. It might mean that he ran, but fear was not the reason he did so.

Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains this well. “You don’t automatically put a comma before the word because, but sometimes you need a comma there to make sure your meaning is clear.”

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

  1. In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary.

I italicized the introductory clause in the above sentence to show that it is not a stand-alone sentence. This clause introduces the clause that follows it, and its meaning is dependent on that following clause.

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions.

However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.

Compound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package.

A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So, use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are actually standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

I hear you saying, “Now wait a minute! Mrs. Downing very clearly taught us to use commas to join clauses, and she was right.”

I’m sorry, but Mrs. Downing probably explained that. It just didn’t stick in your memory.

Two complete ideas can be joined with ‘and.’ Did I just contradict myself?

Sort of.

Think of it like a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them, with a comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the final item/idea.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.

Oh YES, we DO use serial commas to prevent confusion! You’ve all seen the meme: I love cooking my pets and my family. On a personal level, I do love cooking, my pets, and my family. (But not in the same pot.) They’re happy that I use serial commas.

One of my favorite personal failings is the notorious comma splice. Apparently, it’s bad form to join two independent clauses with a simple comma. This error is called a comma splice.

I have it on good authority that a comma splice will not cause a tear in the space-time continuum. But since this breach of humanity occasionally sends commacentrics into a frothing frenzy, we will use the conjunction and give these poor wretches a break.

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. For example: It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark. Although acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others (e.g., Bulgarian or French), comma splices are usually considered style errors in English.”

Commas and their proper use can drive you crazy when you are trying to get your work in order. And quite frankly, the rules are a little confusing.

Consistency is critical. UK usage can vary from US usage in some ways. Find a style guide that you can understand and consult it. Once you have a guide you can work with, use those suggestions consistently in all your work.

I use the Chicago Manual of Style for my work because I am a US citizen, and for creative writing, this is the most comprehensive manual and is what publishers and editors use. If you are strapped for cash, you can often buy secondhand copies of this manual through Amazon.

Commas can easily get out of control for me because I tend to hit the comma key whenever I pause in my thinking when I am in the first draft phase. At that point, I am more concerned with just getting the words down than I am form and style.

However, proper form and style must come into play when we get into the later drafts. Using established protocols for punctuation is important if you want your readers to understand what you meant when you wrote that amazing piece of literature.

Sources and Attributions:

Large portions of this post were first published by Connie J. Jasperson © 2016-2017 under the title, Commas, Morsels of madness or necessary evils? on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on January 25, 2016. It has been re-edited and recycled.

Commas, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, ©  http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Commas/faq0018.html accessed 08-02-2017 The Chicago Manual of Style 15th edition text © 1982, 1993, 2003 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style Online © 2006, 2007, 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style is a registered trademark of The University of Chicago.

The Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, Commas, ©2010-2017 http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/search/site/commas accessed 08-02-2017



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#amwriting: kinship names and terms of endearment

misuse_grammar_consistently_memeI am in the final stages of getting a manuscript ready to send to my editor. As such, I am trying to make it as clean as I can so she won’t tear her hair out in frustration. One thing I am checking for consistency is proper capitalization of terms of endearment, such as “Sir,” or “Dad,” and “Mom.”

I discussed this topic a while back, but having read several books written by authors who clearly had no idea there are rules about terms of endearment and capitalization, it bears repeating.

The rules are basic and simple to remember:

For people who are related, if you are saying it directly to them in place of their name, capitalize it.

  • “I love you, Son.”

If you are mentioning them in conversation, don’t capitalize it.

  • “My son is wonderful.”

Terms of endearment can also

  • Be relatively impersonal.
  • Denote a friendship.
  • Be slightly patronizing in situations where the speakers are not friends.

If the speaker is not related to the person in question, do not capitalize it.

  • “I wouldn’t do that, son.”

Again, as in so many other aspects of the writing craft, context is everything. Consider the word “sir.” It is an honorific. Quoted from the Chicago Manual of Style:

Honorific titles and respectful forms of address are capitalized in any context with several exceptions:

  • sir
  • ma’am
  • my lord
  • my lady

You must also capitalize the words “sir” and/or “madam” when beginning a letter or an email.

  • Dear Sir or Madam

Where king/queen, Lord, or Sir is used as part of someone’s name, it is always capitalized, as are these honorifics:

  • King Karl, and Wanda, the Queen of Meatballs
  • the Empress Sophia
  • Lord Albert Beaucleigh; Lady Mary Cheltenham
  • Sir Julian De Portiers

Where king/queen is employed in the context of a general reference it is lowercased:

  • “Good grief,” said the king.

But should one capitalize the word “sir” when it’s used in dialogue? Which of the following would be correct? “Yes sir.” OR “Yes Sir.”

If the reply is to a respected person in general, it is written with no capital, as it’s not a formal name. But you do need a comma just you would with a formal name:

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes, George.”

The_Chicago_Manual_of_Style_16th_editionAgain, consider the context. When writing dialogue: if your speaking character is in the military and the person he/she is addressing has a military rank above them, and is speaking in their military capacity you must capitalize it.

The exception to this rule is if a younger person of lesser rank is talking to an older person of higher rank in an informal setting. At that point, the younger person is simply speaking respectfully to an older person, and “sir” does not need to be capitalized.

For a more in-depth exploration of that subject see my post of March 14, 2016: son and sir: to capitalize or not?

For further information, see The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition,  issued September 2010,  section 8.32

Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guidehttp://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

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What reference guide is right for what I #amwriting?

The_Chicago_Manual_of_Style_16th_editionNovember is a difficult month for me because I have a specific goal to accomplish, and I’ve set the bar high. It’s National Novel Writing Month and I have many activities involved with that. I need to add writing time to my already packed schedule, attempting to rebuild my stockpile of short fiction and essays, and am letting everything else fall by the way to do it. Trader Joe and the Microwave are providing my husband with hot meals because I have been known to forget to cook.

For my NaNoWriMo project this year I am writing a variety of short pieces, some technical essays on writing craft, some essays on life and travel, and some short fiction. I am writing for three different markets and we will get to why that distinction is important a little further on.

I’m on the road a lot, and have limited time to get my wordcount. Sometimes I get two or three pages of writing done in the 20 or 30 minutes before I have to leave the house for an appointment. There is something about the pressure of knowing I will have to quit at a certain time that forces me to be more productive than I would ordinarily be.

Why is this? When I am pressed for time I use every second to get those ideas out of my head. I don’t have the luxury of stopping to research grammar and questions of style on the good, old, time-wasting internet. Instead I refer to hardcopy reference manuals, unless I absolutely must go out to the internet to research something.

Some references have to be in hardcopy, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most comprehensive style guide geared for writers of essays, fiction, and nonfiction. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is an acceptable beginner style guide, but the information there must be looked at with a critical eye as it is presented in an arbitrary, arrogant fashion and sometimes runs contrary to commonly accepted practice.

Instead I always recommend The Chicago Manual of Style to authors who are writing fiction they someday hope to publish, and who want to know about sentence construction. The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living changing language, and when generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. There is no one style guide that will fit every purpose. Each essay and book may be meant for a different reader, and each should be written with the style that meets the expectations of the intended readers.

The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors and publishers and is the publishing industry standard. All the editors at the major publishing houses own and refer back to this book when they have questions.

micosoft-manual-of-styleWhat is the best style guide for writing technical user manuals?

Are you writing for a newspaper? AP style was developed for expediency in the newspaper industry and is not suitable for novels or for business correspondence, no matter how strenuously journalism majors try to push it forward. If you are using AP style you are writing for the newspaper, not for literature. These are two widely different mediums with radically different requirements.

For business correspondence, you want to use the Gregg Reference Manual.

If you develop a passion for the words and ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books.

Some of my best ideas have come about under a time crunch.  Normally when I am writing on a stream-of-consciousness level, I can key about fifty words a minute, which I know is paltry compared to today’s authors who grew up keying their homework rather than writing it in cursive.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusI do admit that just because I can key those words does not mean they will all make sense, or be worth reading. That is why we are driven to look at what we just wrote the day after we wrote it. Did it say what I meant? How many times did I use the word “sword” in that particular paragraph and where am I going to find six different alternatives for such a unique weapon? Sword? Blade? Steel? After all, an epee is not a claymore, nor is it a saber. Any reader with a small amount of knowledge will know that, so I have to be careful what synonyms I use. My characters swing a claymore-style of sword which is rarely referred to as “steel.” In literature, that term is more commonly used for epees and rapiers.

It’s a jungle in my head sometimes, and my ancient  student edition of Roget’s Thesaurus is no longer my friend. But neither is the modern, online version cutting it. I need more synonyms. Lots, and lots more! Thus I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk and I refer to it regularly. It saves time to use the hardcopy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down the bunny trail of “Wow! I never knew that!”

All in all, I like the way being forced to produce words in a short time helps me lay down a rough draft. But I admit, I do look forward to the end of November, when I can look back on my accomplishments and go back to my normal writing routine of wasting time on the internet researching important things like the life cycle of sand dollars. Who knew those little creatures were so intriguing?


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#amwriting: know your style: hypocrisy in the industry

a writer's styleIn writing, style is far more than simply choosing to wear high-heeled shoes with jeans. Style is a multilayered representation of your voice and your knowledge of the craft of writing.

An author’s style affects the overall readability of his/her finished product. Good readability is achieved by:

  1. Understanding: Keeping to generally accepted grammatical practices. Purchasing and using a style guide when questions arise regarding a creative writing project
  2. Rebellion: if the author chooses to break the accepted rules, he/she does so in a consistent manner.
  3. Wordcraft: The way the author phrases things, and the words he/she chooses, combined with his/her knowledge of the language and accepted usage. Invented word combinations, such as wordcraft (word+craft) and the context in which they are placed.

Simply having a unique style does not make your work fun to read.

Ulysses cover 3Let’s take a look at James Joyce, the man I think of as the king of great one-liners. If you look up great lines quoted from modern classic literature, you will find excerpts from his novel Ulysses represented more often than many other authors.

Yet, while the average reader has heard and often used quotes from Joyce’s work, most people have not read it. They may have picked it up, but then put it down, wondering what all the critics loved so much about it.

The mind of the literary critic is as inscrutable as that of an ex-spouse: hard to understand but easy to run afoul of. I personally learned to love Joyce’s work when I was in a class, taking it apart sentence-by-sentence. Prior to that, I couldn’t understand it, despite the fact it was written in modern, 20th century English.

What makes Joyce’s work difficult for the average reader is his style: he was Irish and had the Irishman’s innate love of words and how they could be twisted, and often wrote using what we call stream-of-consciousness. In doing so, Joyce regularly, but consistently, broke the rules of grammar.

Consistency and context are absolutely critical when an author chooses to write outside the accepted rules of grammatical style. If you just don’t feel like enclosing your dialogue within dialogue tags, it is your choice. Simply tell your editor that is your decision, and she/he will make sure you have consistently omitted them throughout the manuscript.

Queen of the Night alexander cheeYou may, however, have written a book that is difficult for the average person to read, as Alexander Chee has in his brilliant novel The Queen of the Night. While his writing is sheer beauty, this particular style choice is a mystery to me. It makes the book difficult to get into, because you’re reading along, and suddenly you realize you’re reading dialogue, and you have to stop, go back, and reread it.

It is incomprehensible to me why an editor for a large publisher would accept a manuscript that is as annoying as that one flaw makes this otherwise amazing book. It is also proof that large publishers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in this case) are just as guilty as indies when it comes to making strange decisions that can negatively affect sales. They may have done this to elevate it to a “status” read,  a must-buy literary name-dropper for those who wish to appear fashionably cultured. If so, it’s a disservice to a work that is brilliant despite a flaw that would be fatal if it were to appear in an Indie author’s work.

Chee’s editor did one thing correct, however: the lack of closed quotes is consistent throughout the book, and so one can sort of get into the narrative—at least until the dialogue starts up again. This blemish is why I will only recommend the audiobook to readers who are easily discouraged.

Your style choices are critical. They convey your ideas to the reader, and if you make poor choices, you may lose a reader.

James Joyce and Alexander Chee made style choices in their writing that an Indie could never get away with. The world holds Indies to a higher standard, so the choice to omit something as vital as quotation marks would result in instant finger-pointing and mockery of the Indie publishing industry as a whole.

What you choose to write and how you write it is like a fingerprint. It will change and mature as you grow in your craft, but will always be recognizably yours. As you are developing your style, remember: we want to challenge our readers, but not so much that they put our work down out of frustration. Most of us who are Indies can’t rely on our names to sell our books.


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#amwriting: son and sir: to capitalize or not?

Tom Hiddleston MemeTerms of endearment are often used in casual conversation. Each has their own implications which are highly dependent on tone of voice, body language, and social context.

They can be fairly impersonal, denoting a friendship. Conversely, they can be intimate, indicating a close relationship.

Used by perfect strangers they can also be patronizing and rude.

These words vary in creativity from the sublime to the ridiculous:

  • dear
  • mate
  • chum
  • darling
  • honey
  • baby-cakes
  • sweetheart
  • sugar
  • wuvvy-dovey

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: Saying “Hey baby, you’re looking good” varies greatly from the use “Baby, don’t swim at the deep end of the pool!” Certain terms can be perceived as offensive or patronizing, depending on the context and speaker. (end quoted text.)

This brings us to the word “son.” Again, as in so many other aspects of the writing craft, context is everything.

  • “I love you, Son,” said the doting father.

The_Chicago_Manual_of_Style_16th_editionFrom the Chicago Manual of Style, Section 8.35: Kinship names are lower-cased unless they immediately precede a personal name or are used alone:

  • my father and mother
  • Aunt Jane
  • the Bronte sisters
  • I believe Grandmother’s name was Marie
  • Please, Dad, let’s go.
  • She adores her aunt, Maud

But, in the past, instead of a boy’s name, men commonly called boys boy, kid or son, not as a name but as a neutral term of endearment. My interpretation of the word “son” in casual conversation is like this: I feel it should not be capitalized if it is being used to indicate friendship, or in a patronizing fashion.

Wikipedia claims that in an informal setting, such as a pub or gym, the use of terms of endearment is a positive politeness strategy among men. A term like “mate” or “son” shifts the focus toward the friendship existing between the speakers, yet maintains a slight emotional distance.

The problem here is the term “son.” In some cases, it is used when speaking to a man not related, but indicates friendship on the part of an older speaker in regard to a younger companion. I feel that, when used as a neutral form of endearment, the word “son” falls into the same class as:

  • Hand me the scissors, darling.
  • Have a beer, mate.
  • Gloria, dear—how’s your mother?
  • Grab that remote for me, love.
  • How’ve you been, old son?

The above endearments are not between speakers with a deep emotional attachment. They indicate camaraderie and nothing more–they are neutral. Therefore, “son” should not be capitalized if it is being used as a neutral term of endearment when speaking to a person you are not related to.

  • “Okay, son. Tell your ma I stopped by,” said his neighbor.
  • “Get off your high-horse, son,” said man next to him.

As stated above, The Chicago Manual of Style’s preference has always been to lowercase pet names, (which are terms of endearment) but in reality, you can’t go wrong unless you’re inconsistent, since the issue is guided by preference rather than rule.

The word preference means:

  1. a greater liking for one alternative over another or others.

synonyms: liking, partiality, predilection, proclivity, fondness, taste, inclination, leaning, bias, bent, penchant, predisposition

So, if you do choose to capitalize the word “son” when used as a term of endearment, be consistent. But also be aware that it’s not necessary.

Then there is the question of the word “sir.” It is an honorific. From the Chicago Manual of Style section 8.32

Portrait of Henry VIII (1491-1547) by Hans HolbeinHonorific titles and respectful forms of address are capitalized in any context with several exceptions:

  • sir
  • ma’am
  • my lord
  • my lady

Always capped:

  • Madam Speaker
  • Your Honor
  • Your Excellency
  • Her (His, Your) Majesty; His (Her, Your) Royal Highness
  • The Most Reverend William Ronstadt (Roman Catholic Bishop)
  • Lord John Davies; Lady Mary Shelton
  • The First Gentleman; the First Lady
  • The Right Honourable John Carter

Where king/queen is used as part of someone’s name, it is always capitalized:

  • King Bob, and Evelyn, the Queen of Darkness

Where king/queen is used as part of a general reference it is lower-cased:

  • “Hello,” said the king.

Should one capitalize the word sir when it’s used in dialogue? Which of the following would be correct? “Yes, sir.” OR “Yes, Sir.”

Paul-McCartney-on-playing-Rock-BandIf the reply is to a respected person in general, it is written with no capital, as it’s not a formal name. But you do need a comma just as you would with a formal name:

  1. “Yes, sir.” (General politeness.)
  2. “Yes, Sir Paul.” (Formally agreeing with a knight.)
  3. “Yes, Larry.” (Proper use of comma.)

When writing dialogue: if your speaking character is in the military and the person he/she is addressing has a military rank above them, THEN you must capitalize it.

If you are writing about Sir Paul McCartney’s favorite brand of socks, capitalize it.

You must also capitalize the words “sir” and/or “madam” when beginning a letter or an email. My favorite internet example of this is:

Dear Sir or Madam,

I am writing to inform you that you a related to a Nigerian prince. (Grammar Party Blog)

Just refer to me as “my lady” from here on out. Email doesn’t get better than that!


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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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Comatose Ambiguity

CommasThe Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, most authorities on American English and Canadian English, and some authorities on British English (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler’s Modern English Usage) recommend or require the use of the Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma.

Newspaper style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against it, possibly for economy of space.



ambiguityThe style that consistently uses the Oxford comma may be less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the oft quoted, but (according to Snopes) mythological, book dedication:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

There is ambiguity about the writer’s parentage, leading the reader to believe that the writer claims Ayn Rand and God are the parents. 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 define them. For example, in the following manner:

 To God, Ayn Rand and my parents.

I have used both styles in my writing, but am leaning more and more toward the Oxford comma.

Another wonderful example, reportedly collected by Nielsen Hayden, was found in a newspaper account of a documentary about country music legend, Merle Haggard:

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

Whoa!  Who knew that Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall were Merle Haggard’s ex-wives? An Oxford comma would eliminate this hilarious inaccuracy:

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

I usually argue for consistent use of the serial comma because:

  1. Use of the Oxford comma is consistent with conventional practice as suggested by the Chicago Manual of Style, which is my primary reference manual.
  2. It matches the spoken cadence of sentences better, so reading passages aloud will flow more easily. This is something to consider if you intend to have your work turned into an audiobook.
  3. Properly used, it resolves ambiguity.
  4. Its use is consistent with other means of separating items in a list, for example, when consistently included before the last item even when and or or is present.
  5. Its omission can suggest a stronger connection between the last two items in a series than actually exists. (My parents, Ayn Rand and God.)

Common arguments against use of the serial comma:

  1. Improperly used, the comma may introduce ambiguity, and many authors are not clear on its proper use.
  2. I agree that it can be redundant in a simple list because the words  and & or  can serve to mark the logical separation between the final two items, when the final two items are a compound single item. (My parents, Marge and Bob.)
  3. When space is at a premium, the comma adds unnecessary bulk to the text—not usually an issue in a novel or short story. This is a journalistic issue common when writing for a newspaper.

It is fashionable for wouldbe writers to argue against using the Oxford comma, claiming it is unnecessary. However, I frequently see manuscripts where good authors fail to delineate a list in such a way that their intention is clear, by using and & or, thus resulting confusion, and a book that is less enjoyable than it should be.

_72982736_vikings courtesy of BBCThe Oxford comma is the basis of many violent quarrels in writing groups–people tend to be rabidly for or against either side. There is common ground here, people so put away the torches!

Good writing incorporates proper use of both styles and, above all else, avoids ambiguity.



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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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Grandma’s Ferrari and Style

chicago manual of styleOh golly gee–it’s that time of year again. What do I use,  “that” or “which?”   And what the heck are those rules again? Good grief…where did I put that bookmark for the online Chicago Manual of Style….

What? Doesn’t everyone have a bookmark in their list of favorites so they can immediately access a FREE style manual when questions of  style arise? Good lord people–we aren’t talking shoes and handbags here! We’re talking RULES! Specifically, the rules fer writin’ and ropin’ in them thar clauses!

And always remember–for the indie author, free is good. If you don’t have the funds to buy Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, for the love of Dickens, use the internet, Tiny Tim!

Personally, I use both manuals.

The traditional approach to the question of “that versus which” is to use “that” with restrictive clauses and “which” with nonrestrictive clauses. While some writers seem to have abandoned the distinction entirely, no better rule has come along to replace the traditional rule. Moreover, the rule is easy to master.

But what, you ask, is a stinking restrictive clause and why do you need one?

799px-Handcuffs01_2003-06-021.   A restrictive clause is one that limits — or restricts –the identity of the subject in some way. When writing a restrictive clause, introduce it with the word “that” and no comma. (However, if the subject is or was a human being, use “who” to introduce the clause.) This is where “that” goes:

Correct Restrictive Use:

The photograph that was hanging in the hotel lobby was stolen.

The use of “that” in this sentence is correct if the reader intends to single out the one photograph that was in the hotel lobby as the stolen photograph. However, if there were several photographs hanging in the lobby, this use would be incorrect, since it would mislead the reader into believing that there had been only one photograph in the hotel lobby. The restriction here tells us that the one photograph that had been hanging in the hotel lobby was stolen — not the photograph in the cocktail lounge, or the one in the guest library, or any of those in the restaurant.

MH9004387282.  Use “which” with nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause may tell us something interesting or incidental about a subject, but it does not define that subject. When writing a nonrestrictive clause, introduce it with “which” and insert commas around the clause. (However, if the subject is or was a human being, use “who” to introduce the clause and insert commas around the clause.)

According to Wikipedia, the Fount of all Knowledge: non-restrictive clause is a clause in which a noun phrase that is used to avoid repetition (as the referent of an anaphor, meaning that it is substituted by another word but refers to the same noun) is determined by its antecedent where the dependent is peripheral (non-essential) in the secondary constituent, as opposed to a restrictive clause, where the dependent is central (essential) to its primary constituent. A non-restrictive clause does not identify the referent of its noun, but only provides information about it.

220px-Metropolitan_police_BMW_3_seriesRestrictive example:

The officer helped the civilians who had been shot.


The officer helped those civilians who had been shot.

In this example, there is no comma before “who”. Therefore, what follows is a restrictive clause (not all of the civilians had been shot).

Non-restrictive example:

The officer helped the civilians, who had been shot.

Here, there is a comma before “who”. Therefore, what follows is a non-restrictive clause. It changes the sentence to mean that all the civilians had been shot.[1]

Correct Nonrestrictive Use:

The photograph, which was hanging in the hotel lobby, was stolen.

Explanation: While this nonrestrictive use tells us that the photograph was hanging in the hotel lobby, it does not tell us which of the several photographs in the hotel lobby was the stolen photograph. It would be incorrect to use this nonrestrictive clause if there had been only one photograph in the hotel lobby, as the sentence leaves open the possibility that there were others.

  1. Combining Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses. One can provide both limiting and nonlimiting information about a subject in a single sentence. Consider the following.

Correct Use of Both Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses:

220px-Looking_across_lake_toward_mountains,_-Evening,_McDonald_Lake,_Glacier_National_Park,-_Montana.,_1933_-_1942_-_Ansel AdamsThe Ansel Adams photograph that was hanging in the hotel lobby, which was purchased in 1969 for $100,000, was stolen.

The restrictive clause beginning with “that” tells us that only one Ansel Adams photograph was hanging in the hotel lobby and that it was stolen. The nonrestrictive clause beginning with “which” tells us what the owner had paid for the photograph, but it does not tell us that the owner did not pay another $100,000 for another photograph in the same year. It does not limit the possibilities to the Ansel Adams photograph that was in the lobby.

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses beginning with “Who.” When writing about human beings, we use “who” rather than “that” or “which” to introduce a clause telling us something about that human being. Since “who” is the only option, we distinguish between a restrictive use and a nonrestrictive use by the use of commas.


Ferrari_AssetResizeImageOld Mrs. Jasperson, who drives a Ferrari, is going through her second childhood.

Yes, I am a dreamer. Indies are lucky to be able to afford bus passes.

Anyway, that “who clause” is nonrestrictive because the information in the clause doesn’t restrict or limit the noun it modifies (Old Mrs. Jasperson.) The commas signify that the adjective clause provides added, but not essential, information. Use a pair of commas to set off words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt a sentence, as in these quotes:

Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Anthony Burgess said, “Literature is all, or mostly, about sex.”

But don’t use commas to set off words that directly affect the fundamental meaning of the sentence:

Samuel Johnson said, “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

400px-CH_cow_2See? I do understand the principles, and when it comes to theory, I can talk clauses and quarks ’til the cows come home.

But truthfully folks, when I am in the zone, I just bash out the words and trust that my editors will not only rein me in when  I get too free with my commas, they will weed out all the extraneous “thats” and “whiches” that creep into every author’s raw manuscript.

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