Monday, July 11, 2011

Punctuation Rule Changes – Oh the Horror!

A co-worker approached last week asking if I’d heard about changes the University of Oxford is making to its rule about serial comma usage. The old rule was, when writing a list within a sentence, to use a comma after each item in the list (ex: a, b, and c). But now they are advising the removal of that final comma (ex: a, b and c).

My co-worker sent me a link to the article she’d seen and I headed online to check it out. Don’t Kill the Oxford Comma written by Mary Elizabeth Williams, on the site, made the event of the serial comma change rule seem a bit more dramatic than planned. But in general I found the article very interesting as not only an aspiring writer, but as a Copy Editor.

The dramatization of this change felt more like people in amazement to see a change in a grammar rule. The question of why change what’s not broken came to my mind. In my opinion, changing grammatical rules that have been in place for years upon years seems more like someone was bored and felt like saying, “Hey, let’s stop using that comma! Who needs it anyway?”

In general, this rule really doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. It depends on what style guide you use, if any. Apparently the Chicago Manual of Style has not announced any change in serial comma usage. And, in fact, some publishers have created their own style guide to be used, sometimes a mixture of different rules.

So, why am I writing about this article that I honestly found strange to come upon anyway? First, because I find it fascinating that some people would be so up in arms enough to write a serious article discussing the use of serial commas. And second, because there are some people who do follow certain manuals of style and who should know when these changes happen, if they are so strictly following what should and should not be done.

As a fiction writer I’ve felt that rules like this should be decided by you, and you alone, for your writing. (Unless of course you’re under contract with a publisher, then you follow whatever styles they’ve chosen.) You can follow one set of grammar rules, or you can do what you feel is correct using different guides, as long as it remains the rule throughout your entire book. To follow one rule in the first chapter, and then change it up in the next, could get slightly annoying for those of us who read word for word.

In the end, is this grammar change by Oxford going to change the way we write. No, in fact they didn’t expect to get so many people up in arms about the whole thing. It was actually stated, since the release of this article, that the rule was changed years ago and had appeared online for quite some time. (Which would explain why I had seen the serial comma used both the old and new way for quite some time now.) They even posted a new blog to discuss the usage of the serial comma to avoid any more confusion.

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