Being a Better Writer: The Oxford Comma and Commas in General

Hello readers, and welcome back to another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! Though today just isn’t any old Monday. Today is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so named in the honor of the individual whose name it bears.

Don’t know who that is? You should! If his name is unfamiliar to you past the holiday bearing it, I’d suggest a quick Google. Maybe read a speech of his. Or two. See why so much of what he said is still held in such high regard all these years later.

Now, before we dive into today’s post, I do have one little bit of news that went up as I was writing this: LTUE has announced their COVID-19 requirements. You can find the full thing on the Facebook post here, but I don’t doubt it will be up on their site shortly if it isn’t already. To whit, these are the requirements given:

  • You must have either proof of vaccination or a current, negative Covid test (within 72 hours) at check-in to attend.
  • Mask wearing, mouth and nose, enforced. Exceptions for eating and drinking, but neither will be allowed in certain areas. Panelists will be able to remove masks while paneling for accessibility purposes.
  • Seating will be spaced wider to aid with distancing.

As of right now, there is no plan to cancel and be online only. I hope it stays that way!

So then with that news out of the way, and with the day growing late already, let’s dive into today’s topic: The Oxford comma! Plus some general comma useage and advice.

This topic is actually one of our reader requests, who had a query about yes, the titular Oxford comma, but also as well about commas in general, noting that sometimes programs with built-in (and suspect) grammar editing asked for commas to be removed or worse placed where they didn’t feel that they really worked. They even poised the question about commas that didn’t quite fit truly grammatically, but did mimic real-life speech patterns.

So, we’re going to dive into that today. Starting with that Oxford comma.

If you’re not familiar with the Oxford comma, it’s the name for the comma that precedes the final item in a list, prior to the “and” rounding things out. For example, take this statement. I will go camping and bring food, hiking boots, a radio, and a tent.

See that last comma, just before the and? I bolded it, but that didn’t do much. Anyway, that’s what’s known as an “Oxford comma.” Sometimes it is also known as a “serial comma” (I would imagine due to the “serial sequence” on display with the listing. Anyway, I’m sure you’ve seen it before.

However … not everyone lives by the Oxford comma. In fact, there are people who are wholly opposed to it (I’ve met a few). Because it’s not technically required under some schools of English, the Oxford comma often falls into a grey area, required by some jobs or publications and eschewed by others.

Writing books is no different. For some, the statement I gave above would be “I will go camping and bring food, hiking boots, a radio and a tent.”

Now I’m sure a lot of you just shrugged. Maybe along with some variant spoken or thought of “What’s wrong with that?” And this is why the Oxford comma is indeed a hard sell with some people. They see a statement like that and think “Well, that’s perfectly legible. Why have an extra comma?”

Well, let’s take a look at a different sentence, one that’s been memed pretty well over the years. “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” Right? Seems pretty clear, and again you can see that Oxford comma there.

Well now let’s cut it out and see what we get. “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Hold. Up. What just happened? Somehow, that whole sentence just changed in an alarming fashion. In the first sentence we have strippers, JFK, and Stalin. In the second sentence … now JFK and Stalin are the strippers.

Surely someone somewhere is into that, but I don’t think that’s what was being aimed for.

See, the Oxford comma by its inclusion creates a direct, clear pause. A differentiation, in other words. While the lack of an Oxford comma? Well, it still works … but it also introduces ambiguity. Sometimes we can count on the reader or the subject matter to overcome that ambiguity … but sometimes we cannot.

And as an aside, as anyone involved in any sort of tech, retail, or troubleshooting position can tell you, relying on the average person to “figure it out” is usually a recipe for disaster (as spoofed in this video here).

Now, I can’t tell you that you have to use the Oxford comma. I don’t have that kind of power. However, I can that as an author, I can advise you with stern tones that removing ambiguity in your writing is a very good idea. Therefore, I support the Oxford comma and its usage in your writing wherever appropriate. Leave the ambiguity for unreliable narrators mysteries, or will-they-won’t-they (not mysteries or will-they-won’t-they). Be clear and precise with your words.

Use the Oxford comma.

Now speaking of other commas, well … This is where things get tricky. The reader who posited this question noted that they felt they had a habit of putting too many commas into what they wrote.

Good news! So do I! We have that in common. I don’t know if it is because sometimes I pause when I write and start thinking, so then add a comma because I paused, or if I just seem to like sticking them here and there throughout my drafts. But whatever the reason, I’d estimate that I probably delete a sixth of all commas in my work when I do a Pre-Alpha pass. More get deleted in the Alpha and Beta stages.

This is fine! At one point I tried to cut down on the number of commas I was inserting into my work, only to realize that when the time to edit came, I found myself inserting commas where they were needed rather than deleting them from where they were superfluous. Ultimately I decided to go with the more “in the moment” insertion of extra commas over trying to track down and insert them later.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t do that as well. Editing is a process, and that means that I always end up finding places to insert commas as well as delete them. Sometimes alongside a small rewrite of a sentence or a paragraph to bring more clarity or tighten things up.

“But hold!” some might say. “Commas? Tighten things up? I thought they were pauses. Doesn’t that lengthen things out a bit?”

Well yes, but that’s not what we mean by “tight.” Tight writing is writing that conveys what’s going one and does so well. And sometimes that means letting a character speak, think, or narrate in run-ons, with far too many commas. This can still be tight writing, despite being overly long and drawn out, because it shows an aspect of character.

Which, to dive into a nebulous zone, is why I can’t simply say “Keep to X number of commas” and call it good. However I also cannot say that it’s safe to simply disregard the rules and go on as one wishes. It’s said, quite truthfully, that the best writers know and understand all the rules of writing so that when they do break or bend them, they do so with a specific purpose that will best serve the story. So the best I can say then is to do your best to keep the rules, but then when you feel like it may be in the story’s interest to bend them (we’re talking about commas here, specifically), maybe give it a shot and try reading both ways. See if it works. See if it fits. See how the readers react to it.

Should you delete or include commas? I cannot give a case by case answer. I can merely say that if you’re placing too many, you’re probably going to be like me and delete a bunch. At the same time however, I do that in editing. Get the story out, then clean.

I apologize for the ambiguity of this latter half. If anything, consider it a reinforcement of the first half specifying how being less ambiguous by using the Oxford Comma really is useful. Ambiguity isn’t great.

But unfortunately, I cannot possibly make an entire post for every use case of the comma. It would be titanic. So in closing, all I can say is a reiteration of what I stated above: Do your best, then edit. You may end up cutting down. Maybe you’ll add more. But keep in mind what your aim is, and how to best convey that to the reader. It’s not easy … but there is one silver lining: Half the time comma usage is ambiguous enough to the common person that most won’t be able to say if it’s right or wrong. Just whether it read properly.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: The Oxford Comma and Commas in General

  1. When I first started writing fiction, I was a *horrid* abuser of the comma in run-on sentences. (I’m a little better now) I’ll still stick in extra commas in the writing process and clear out the trash in an editing pass. I like to think I tend to the Oxford, Yale, and Harvard commas like I’m getting paid for their plethora, but seeing one of them lurking around in a draft lets me do the “Can this be rephrased?” which is useful.


  2. Well. If I hadn’t already cancelled my LTUE plans, this would led to that anyway.

    Ah, commas. Everyone struggles with them in some way. I think the biggest issue I have as a reviewer is remembering that people look at them differently. Some people share my perspective. Plenty of good writers do not. For the latter, their writing looks wrong to me even as I can see what they’re doing and why. It can be very easy to jump on them as a sign of a bad writer. But then I recall that my own opinions towards commas is constantly changing, and on any given day I might decide that one situation is or isn’t a good one for a comma (I deleted three for this post already). I think, for our collective sanity, we just need to look at commas as something that not everyone is going to agree on.

    Liked by 1 person

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