by Jennifer Hasheider
I’ve seen a debate around social media regarding use of the Oxford comma. This comma is also known as the serial, series, and Harvard comma. It is placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and, or, or nor) in a series of three of more terms.
For example, a list of three things that can kill you might read:
“Be wary of bears, sharks, and the Terminator.”
As opposed to the non-use of the comma which would look like this:
“Be wary of bears, sharks and the Terminator.”
Did you know that either format is correct? The U.S. government requires use of the Oxford comma. The Associated Press Style Book for journalism advises against using it. In many cases, it will depend on your own style/style book, before your editor gets a hold of it, anyway.
One of the first tidbits of advice passed to a fledgling writer is to learn all the rules. Once this has been accomplished, a wordsmith can break these rules, as long as it’s done well. This means that it is okay to form your own writing style, as long as you do it well.
“Doing it well” many times means simply being consistent. If you begin writing your manuscript with Oxford commas, you should also finish your manuscript using Oxford commas.
One of my jobs as a developmental editor is to ensure consistency throughout a piece. I keep my eyeballs peeled for tiny things like the Oxford comma. I also keep my mind open to such mistakes as a character in white pants that later wipes lemon-butter sauce off his blue jeans, or the frat guy eating a sandwich and finishing a pizza at the end of a scene. I make sure your pitcher pitched the ball before your catcher caught it, and that Katie remains Katie and doesn’t morph into Katy in Chapter 3.
As a writer, you are the author of your baby, and therefore, sometimes much too close to the piece to realize when things are awry. It happens to the best of us. We’re human with human brains. As the creator, you know exactly how your lines lines should read. My job is to observe your style and correct it when it needs correcting.
I’ve found that sometimes there is too much pressure to write well, longer, shorter, faster, slower, more detailed, less detailed, do this popular thing, don’t do that… the whole process can easily consume an author until he or she can’t write at all. When that happens, it makes me sad. Writing is about passion, unless you are a technical writer, of course. So, sit down and dump your passion onto paper. Write it down. Get it out and then hire a developmental editor to fix it. If you are now feeling pressured about whether or not to use an Oxford comma or not, let me decide. I’ll count those little suckers and we’ll let majority rule.