the Oxford comma fight…again?

* Facepalm
Yet another Oxford comma post on Facebook.

This post is for writers. And you, the person who cares about having great writing. In the “fight” on whether or not to use the Oxford comma, breathe, smile, and read this:

Posted today on Facebook: A brilliant picture explaining the need for the Oxford comma –
– that comma in a list of three or more items in a sentence…the one that shows up before the “and”:

This, that, and the-other-thing sentences.
(Oxford comma used.)

And the poster’s comment:
Okay. Please. Pay attention.

(This is important.)


Stop arguing that one has a right or not, to use the Oxford comma.

All the common arguments are listed on the Facebook post:
* The argument about it’s my style choice (the freedom argument).
* The argument, we don’t need to use spotless punctuation (the hyperbole argument).
* And, finally, the argument that it’s all about story, so you don’t need the Oxford comma (the other freedom argument).

please know that my point in this post is not to call anyone out or offend anyone.

But I have to say something.

Dudes. (And Dudettes.)
We’re completely missing the point.

Get this:
Whether writing fiction or nonfiction,
it’s all about clarity. The READER’s clarity .

>>> Not our writer’s preference. <<<

Because communicating is not about us.
(Not. About. Us.)

It’s about them. The reader.

It’s about the reader’s needs.
The reader lining up with your writer’s mind.
Helping the reader cross the bridge of mind-melding,
to get your exact substance, interpretation, implication, and essence of idea.

Now here’s where we go wrong: We tend to believe story can’t be story without freedom in all measures. Or that I, as a writer, am not bound by punctuation or any other guide, because my writing is my personal expression.

Well, whether you’re purposefully writing a stream of consciousness style or an advertisement to sell, fighting for your “right” to use or not use Oxford comma is really not the point.

The point is, punctuation has a job —
And knowing (or not knowing) its job
will help (or hurt) your writing.

The job varies with your writing’s purpose.

What and who is this for?
What are the audience’s rules, if they have any, and am I abiding by their rules?

Is the meaning coming across? I’m talking ’bout that mental and emotional meaning — so that the reader CLEARLY gets EXACTLY what I want them to think, see, hear, taste, and feel (physically and emotionally).

NotebookAndPenFirst, step aside to academic writing.

Academic writing is its own animal…one that breathes the Oxford comma.

As an academic/college writing instructor of many years, I’ll tell you something: You absolutely HAVE to abide by clarity rules — including punctuation and grammar. In scientific writing (as pointed out in the FB comments), the Oxford comma is required. In your dissertation, the Oxford comma is required. And believe me, in your college entrance essay, using the Oxford comma gets you bonus points. Just as a basketball game’s referee calls foul! and blows the whistle, you’ll be called out, without the Oxford comma.

So if you want to succeed, you’d better use the rules.

Right now, I hear you all saying,
What about non-academic writing, where “there are no rules”?

Yes, there surely are different rules of the game for different writing purposes.

AHEM. But. Again.
Clarity wins.
The reader’s clarity.
Not. My. Preference.

It’s true, you can argue about anything. You can stay in the mud-sucking back and forth about the Oxford comma till the cows come home, as momma used to say. But arguing that the Oxford comma will or will not bring clarity is, well, not up to us. It’s up to the reader.

And the examples from this blog post, shown above, side with our dear reader, don’t they?

Second, understand story.

Story writing is its own animal, too — one, I truly believe, needs the Oxford comma. As a story writer with a hard-earned MFA in creative/genre fiction writing, I have to tell you: If it ain’t clear, the reader stops reading. (Yes, I wrote ain’t…with a big ol’ twang. Because if it ain’t clear, yooz in trouble.)

Too many moments of have-to-go-back-and-read-it-again-because-I-missed-the-meaning  kills your writing. Dead. Period. 

X – X

For that reason alone, if there’s any question at all about clarity, I use the Oxford comma — yes, in fiction. There are too many reasons for our reader to put the book down. I certainly don’t want that. (And I’m guessing you don’t, either.)

We — you, me, all of us — simply need to get off our writer high horses and think about the reader and his or her needs. Period.

And here’s why…

tally marks
You know the prisoner in the cell, the one writing the tally marks on the wall for how many days he’s been locked away? Readers are like that. ANY reader. From teachers grading essays to the Average Joe and Josephine reading your novel. When he (or she) stumbles on (hesitates, has to think out of the flow of)  your writing, it’s a tally mark. When he misses your meaning, it’s a tally mark. When anyone has to — heaven help us — read over a sentence or paragraph again, it’s a rapid-fire swishing of the tally marks thrown with flair onto the wall. And then, tally-marked out, the reader closes your book. THWAP.

No, readers aren’t prisoners — and tally-mark mania is not even a conscious “I’m going to find problems and complain.” Tally marks exist as a subconscious reader-thingy we all do — and tally mark reading is something we have to understand and acquiesce to.

We have to give up our personal rights to, in order to keep the reader engaged.

Reading this post, you may feel like leaving with the hang-tight-to-my-preferences stance. You can do that.

But. I’d love to have you open your mind to something that just might help you in your ability to get readers to stick around and feel completely good about your writing. 

Because serving the reader, first and always,
helps us to be successful.




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