To Oxford Comma or Not?

Before one can make the decision about whether they should use an Oxford comma or not, one must first understand what the Oxford comma is.

Consider a list with at least three different items: apples, oranges and bananas. If one was to use an Oxford comma, then the list would look like apples, oranges, and bananas. Notice the use of the comma before the and. However, you won’t always find a comma before the and. If the list has only two items, that list of apples and oranges wouldn’t use a comma.

Confusing, right?

Arguments about whether one should use an Oxford comma have been around for years. So many industry professionals have differing views. Even university academics in English literature can’t agree. So what is the writer who just wants to write their stories supposed to do?

The answer is easy: pick an option and stick to it.

Here’s the deal. If you are heading down the traditional publication road, whether or not you use an Oxford comma won’t be grounds for rejection. An agent might have their view, but the publishing house that buys your book will have their own guidelines regarding the matter. They’re the publisher and they make the final decision. The copy-editor on the project will make all the changes required based on the publisher’s chosen style guide.

If you are self-publishing, then the decision falls to you as the writer. You will need to discuss with your copy-editor what you would like to happen. It doesn’t matter whether the copy-editor likes them or not; if you don’t want them used, then don’t use them. If you leave the decision to your copy-editor, which many writers publishing their first books might do, then you still need to have this discussion with your editor. You need to know what style guide they used and what decisions were made regarding punctuation, like the Oxford comma.

Now, I can hear a few of you saying that you don’t really care. Well, you should. It’s your name on those books and those books form part of your brand. Consistency is the key, starting with your narrative voice and through to your covers. Even the simple, insignificant punctuation is part of that brand. What you do in one book, you need to do in all your books.

You may start your publication career using one copy-editor, but for a variety of reason, later books might employ a different copy-editor. For the sake of consistency, you need to know what your first editor did to your book so you can provide proper instructions to the new editor.

And for those writers who are working on collaborative projects, you need to talk to your co-writers. It needs to be a joint decision, whatever that decision might be.

It’s so complicated, I know, but it all adds to the end reader experience.

So should a writer use the Oxford comma? In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Just be consistent.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

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