Tag Archives: grammar

The Great Oxford Comma Debacle of 2019 (PLUS a New Release!)

If you’ve written anything in the last 35 years, you may have gotten conflicting advice about the necessity of using certain commas. The Oxford comma has been the subject of great debate during this time (I kid you not!) with people standing firmly in one of two camps.

What The Heck is An Oxford Comma and Who Cares?

The Oxford comma, sometimes called the serial comma, is the punctuation that occurs just before a coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more items.


For example, in the below sentence, the Oxford comma is placed before and:

Ross pulled himself heavily to his feet, picked up his glass, and drained the last bit of iced tea.

OH! Those commas!

You probably either always use them or never do. See, you might have your own opinion about the Oxford comma but didn’t know it! 🙂

So, why is this one little punctuation mark so hotly debated? Well, many would argue it’s more stylistic than necessaryin most cases. Every editor, teacher, and writer (published or not) have an opinion on this little devil of a punctuation mark.

There are two schools of thought on the Oxford comma (okay, three…):

  1. They should always be used to avoid any confusion for the reader.
  2. They are unnecessary in most cases, so don’t worry about using themunless the sentence could be totally misread without one.
  3. If you write properly, you don’t need them.

The reason for such differing opinions about this little comma is that humans use language. And, since humans are always changing (we hope evolving), so does our language. Grammar rules and stylistic no-no’s go in and out of favor. When I was in middle school, I was taught to always use the Oxford comma. By the time I got to my freshman year of college, they were considered outdated and usually unnecessary. Language and its governing rules are living things, always changing.

Are you asking yourself why I’m discussing the pros and cons of the Oxford comma?

Because, in the first scene of my new book in the Digital Detective Mystery series, Libel to Kill two wanna-be authors are duking it out over the Oxford comma.

See for yourself how the book opens:

Libel to Kill Oxford comma

“No, no, no,” Bernadette “Bernie” Comer said sharply. “I’ve told you, the Oxford comma is vital for clarity.

Phyllis Buckley straightened in her chair. “Well, I have a brand-spankin’ new grammar book that says it’s up to the writer’s whether to use ‘em.”

“I was taught in school to always use them, and I stick by that.” Bernie sternly nodded her head once as if determining the matter was settled.

The weekly meeting of the Writing Alliance Circle, or WAC, was in full swing, as was evident from the argument that periodically resurfaced. During each meeting, writers have the chance to get feedback on their work-in-progress. It was sheer bad luck Phyllis had landed with Bernie this week.

“You were in school back when Moses brought the stone tablets down from the mountain. I hardly think we can go off that antiquated advice,” Phyllis’ voice grew loud.

I knew where this was leading, and it was nowhere good. I looked at the ceiling, gathering my patience. I stood and headed over to them. I needed to intervene before they came to blows.

Bernie huffed and crossed her arms over her ample chest. “Phyllis Buckley, you are older than me. How dare you bring my age into this. I’ll have you know my cardiologist recently told me I’d live another twenty years, regardless of my—” Libel to Kill is now available! Amazon

Why Did I Start The First Scene This Way?

The theme for Libel to Kill is overcoming societal conventions that hold us back from being who we truly are. When I was plotting the book, the idea of the Oxford comma debate came to mind, and I snagged it. I’ve been in these debates, both in person and online. They can get heated (I’m not making that up!) It was the perfect way to open the bookwith a convention that has changed over the years. And one we are sometimes forced to use, (by teachers or editors) no matter our thoughts on the subject.

Below are just a few of the sentences using the Oxford comma from Libel to Kill:

  • This is what I’d hoped for when I’d started the group—an intimate band of wanna-be authors coming together to share our joys, frustrations, and feedback.
  • In the drainer beside the sink, Bernie had neatly stacked a couple of plates, a glass, silverware, and a teapot.
  • She [Ellie] slammed her fork down on the table, stood up, and dashed up the stairs.
  • Up close, I could see she [Marjory] had a rash on her neck, face, and hands.
  • Attempting to stay objective, I wrote the sins Bernie had assigned, along with any details about their motive, means, and opportunity, next to each name.
  • Bernie had an ample supply of toilet paper, hand towels, and wash clothes under the sink, along with her disposable hypodermic syringes.
  • Evan, Ned, and Reverend Holt could lose their businesses or vocation if their indiscretions came out.
  • She [Phyllis] perked up a little, dragging out lists of possible caterers, swatches for bridesmaid dresses, and a list of songs they’d like the band to play.
  • The first couple of pages listed chapters, the characters, and their indiscretions bulleted underneath.
  • Both [Bernie’s kids] had sandy-brown hair cut in easy-to-maintain styles, were tallish, and dressed in basic jeans and plain t-shirts.
  • Feeling dejected after my discussion with Bernie’s kids, I pushed aside my plate, put my elbow on the table, and anchored my chin on my fist.
Libel to Kill

Libel to Kill Synopsis

Jade Blackwell had no idea when she started the Writers Alliance Circle (affectionately known as WAC) it would lead to murder. Though everyone else in the village believes the old battleax, Bernie Comer, died of natural causes, Jade can’t help but see the inconsistencies. Isn’t is just possible someone killed Bernie to keep their secrets from being revealed in her libelous novel?

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also her disastrous attempts to write a mystery novel and her argumentative daughter home from college for the summer. False starts, misdirection, and a Bible-quoting parrot can’t hold Jade back for long, but would she have been better off letting sleeping dogs lie?

With her usual sidekicks too preoccupied with their own dramas, Jade is forced to seek justice on her own. Ignoring the snickers at her expense, Jade investigates Bernie’s death while trying to fly under the naysayers’ radars. 

Libel to Kill is now available! Amazon

Find out how Jade Blackwell got her sleuthing start...for free! Just tap HERE to get your immediate download of Blogging is Murder.

When you sign up, you’ll also automatically be registered to win one of four grand prizes! Read Jade’s first adventure for free HERE!

Posted by Gilian Baker. Gilian is a former English professor who has gone on to forge a life outside academia by adding cozy mystery author to her C.V. She’s the author of the Digital Detective Mystery Series.

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6 Answers Fiction Writers Have for the Grammar Police

by Kassandra Lamb

made at imgflip.com

One of the frustrations of being a fiction writer is the occasional need to defend ourselves when accosted by the Grammar Police.

Now, that’s not to say that we don’t sometimes become the Grammar Police ourselves. Most of us have had a lot of training in the use of language, including proper grammar. So we grind our teeth when we see flat-out errors (apostrophes in places they don’t belong is one of my pet peeves).

But often our own grammatical “mistakes” really aren’t mistakes at all.

Certainly we writers do sometimes make boo-boos in our writing. Anytime one is feverishly typing — trying to get the words down before the muse snatches them away again — there is bound to be an occasional “your” slipping in where we meant “you’re.” (That’s why it’s so important for writers to get fresh eyes to proofread their final work.)

But many of the things the Grammar Police see as horrific errors are more examples of literary license and/or the evolution of language.

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

1.  Sentence fragments are okay in fiction. Honest! They are. For emphasis. They should be used sparingly, but it really is okay to leave out the subject, or even the subject and the verb, or some other component of a grammatically-correct sentence, when writing fiction.

2.  Dialogue is about how people really talk, not what is grammatically correct.

Nothing will bring out the grammar police reaction in me faster than someone using “that” to refer to a person.

made at imgflip.com

made at imgflip.com

~ She’s the one that came to the door.

No, no, no! 

~ She’s the one who came to the door.

However, if you put quotes around that first sentence, indicating that it’s dialogue, it is now okay. Because that’s how people talk today, in America at least.

Likewise, “a couple of days ago” is grammatically correct. But when speaking, someone is more likely to say, “A couple days ago.”

3.  Dropping some “correct” words for the sake of flow.  Flow is important in fiction. The smoother the flow of words, the more the reader forgets that s/he is reading and becomes immersed in the story.

One of the things writers are advised to do is read the story out loud. When you see how easily (or not) the words flow off the tongue, you have a better sense of how easily they will flow through the reader’s mind.

For example, when a dependent clause acts as a modifier of a noun, it technically should begin with “that.” But often times, the “that” can be dropped and the sentence still means the same thing, but it flows a bit smoother.

~  It was the blanket that the toddler always carried around with her.

~  It was the blanket the toddler always carried around with her.

4.  Mixing verb tenses. Fiction is most often written in past tense.

~  She walked to the bench and picked up the book.

We read that as something that is happening in the present in the story. So if a writer needs to talk about something that happened in the character’s past–even a few minutes before–the past perfect tense is required.

~  It was the book she had dropped in a puddle earlier.

This is fine if it’s just a sentence or two, but if we’re writing whole paragraphs in the past perfect tense, all the “hads” start to get awkward. And especially if the verb going with the had is “to have.”

~  She had had enough.

That looks really, really weird. So again, in the interest of flow and helping the reader forget s/he is reading, the “hads” are often dropped in the middle of the paragraph and we revert to simple past tense. Or the “had” may be replaced with a contraction.

What had he been thinking? The case was poison from the get go. His partner warned him. She’d pointed out that they didn’t need the money that badly. But he’d gone ahead and told the client yes. And now they were paying the price.

If you don’t think that’s smoother, here’s the technically correct version:

What had he been thinking? The case had been poison from the get go. His partner had warned him. She had pointed out that they hadn’t needed the money that badly. But he had gone ahead and had told the client yes. And now they were paying the price.

Which brings us to…

5.  Contractions are okay in narration. When I was in school, contractions were only okay in dialogue. In narration, they were a no-no.

But today, writers are trying to pull the reader into the point-of-view character’s perspective as much as possible. So contractions are not only helpful for flow, but they make the reader feel more like s/he is inside the POV character’s head, experiencing what they are thinking, observing, doing, etc. right along with them.

6.  Language evolves.  Like it or not, this is reality.

If you don’t believe me, try asking for directions using Chaucer’s English and see what happens.

Blake's Canterbury Pilgrims

William Blake’s The Canterbury Pilgrims, 1808 (public domain)

Did you notice in the 2nd paragraph in number 5 above, I refer to a single POV character, and then say: experiencing what they are thinking, observing, doing, etc. right along with them?

Maybe you did, but I’m betting you didn’t. Because it is becoming more and more acceptable to use “they” as the pronoun for a singular person whose gender is unknown.

Such changes in language usually start in speech. Then, as the new usage becomes more acceptable, it eventually becomes the norm in written language as well.

What about you? What grammar mistakes make you grind your teeth? How do you feel about language evolving?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )