The Dumbest Argument Writers Will Ever Have

This week I was chatting with a couple of other writers, and to my horror, one of the most controversial topics in the writing world surfaced just a few minutes into the conversation.

Normally, writers are pretty civil to each other.

We know the work is hard graft and I think we are generally inclined to support each other.

But there’s one thing that rips the profession apart, and has otherwise peaceful scribes sharpening their digital pikes and looking for their Reddit pitchforks.

It’s one tiny piece of punctuation. Barely even a scratch on a page.

The Oxford comma.

In case you haven’t been exposed to this tiny devil, it’s a comma placed after the second-last item in a list of three or more things, before using ‘and’ or ‘or’.

For comparison’s sake, here’s a phrase that uses the Oxford comma:

I wrote six pages, some notes, and an email.

And one that doesn’t:

I wrote six pages, some notes and an email.

It turns otherwise rational, skilled people into zealots, all but frothing at the mouth in rage that some stranger on the Internet disagrees with them.

Ughhh. WHO CARES.

Look. The Oxford comma can help with clarity, particularly when listing things that don’t group together naturally.

But other times it is pure conceit. Insisting on its use in every situation is fussy self-importance, and bars the reader from having a natural experience of your writing.

We only use the Oxford comma occasionally in speech, for emphasis.

(I bet you know someone who uses an Oxford comma cadence more frequently in speech. You know that very annoying rhythm where they’re trying to create suspense, but succeed only in shredding your patience? That’s the one.)

My point is this: there are two purposes to writing, and two purposes only.

To connect with your reader, and to be understood as you intended.

No great writer achieves this by ruminating on whether they’re using arcane grammatical structures correctly.

Write the way that comes naturally to you.

Write with as much clarity as you can, without having to rely on grammatical crutches to communicate your meaning.

Choose words that the reader cannot misunderstand, and treat grammar as a tool, not as a torture device.

More than anything, write to the people you want to create a bond with, using language that will resonate with them.

It’s really that simple, whether you use the Oxford comma, the American comma, or whatever punctuation tickles your fancy.