Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Who Gives a **** About an Oxford Comma?

Do not worry, I am not about to charge into a highly charged rant about correct grammar usage. The title is actually the first line of a song by an American rock band named Vampire Weekend. So when a friend texted me earlier today and asked for my opinion on the Oxford Comma, I gave him a critique of the band. It turned out that he was referring to an actual Oxford Comma. As much as it pains me to admit this, I had no idea what he was talking about.

Thanks to Google, I now know what an Oxford Comma is. It is when a comma is used before the "and" at the end of a list. For example: one, two, three, four, and five. Did you spot it? Of course you did. The way that most would write this list would be: one, two, three, four and five. The Oxford Comma does not really come into its own unless we are talking about a list of pairs?

Take this next example: Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant and Bono and the Edge. Is there possible confusion this time around? They are all duos, but whilst this is clear with the first two, it could be read as if the rest make up a quartet. So, let's try it again, but with the Oxford Comma. Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Page and Plant, and Bono and the Edge. Obviously, this time it is clearly four entities that are being listed rather than three. Is the Oxford Comma then essential? It all depends on the writer's preference really. Personally, I would not use it, as content should be self explanatory. I am, however, worried that such a simple grammatical tool had escaped my attention for so long.

A few weeks ago I attended a TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) training course. Obviously, grammar was an important factor on the course and I was surprised that I was the only person present (apart from the instructor) who was aware of the "gerund". Everybody who speaks English uses gerunds (a verb ending in "ing" that forms the basis of a phrasal noun*), but it seemed that not many could actually label it. This did get me thinking as to how much a writer needs to know about grammar. The conclusion that I came to was AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.

This is not to say that a writer needs to know everything, but they do have to be willing to learn and they should definitely know considerably more than the layman. A good book (or ten) on the ins and outs of English grammar is an essential piece of kit for any aspiring author. It is not necessary to memorize the contents of such a book, but they should be referred to regularly.

Of course, some will argue that all rules are made to be broken. If your writing departs from convention, it can make it stand out and appear more interesting. However, it does take a skilled wordsmith to be able to achieve this successfully. The reader will know if your digression from the path of correct grammar is a deliberate and calculated move or simply a case of ignorance.

Quentin Tarantino once said that he would never insult his audience by assuming that they know less than him. He has a point. A writer will not get very far if he or she tries to bluff their audience. An author's voice must carry authority. There is no room for shortcuts.

* Note the difference between "I love to write" and "I love writing". In the latter, the verb "write" is transformed by the gerund into providing the function of a noun.

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1 comment:

  1. Get the story out of your head and soul, forget stops commas exclamations, just write until your finished, then get back over it, saying the words out loud, act the words think how it sounds to your self then Be damned and publish
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