Non-optional punctuation is, strictly speaking, non-optional.

It so happened the other day that I discussed standard punctuation practices with an intelligent and well-educated person — let’s call him Kyle — who nevertheless was a bit confused about whether commas are required in compound sentences. He thought this was one of the uses covered in the ‘Oxford comma controversy.’ (It’s not really a controversy, mind you: Some people require ’em, some don’t, and more people than either extreme likes to admit are just kinda, y’know, “Do whatever helps the sentence make the most sense, man.”) So I explained to him that the Oxford comma only applies to items in a list. (It isn’t his fault he didn’t know this. If even English majors are fuzzy on jargon, it’s no wonder the rest of us sometimes forget. On the other hand, jargon is far less important than practical application — you don’t need to know what to call it as long as you know how to use it correctly.)

The Oxford comma is subject to debate. However, I have never seen any reliable source (“I think I remember hearing it from some teacher at my school once” is not a reliable source — you do know that, right?) say that the comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence is optional, or that you only need it when using some conjunctions and not others. I’ve also never seen a reliable source say that you flat-out shouldn’t use it.

(If anyone knows of such a source, you’re welcome to mention it in the comments on this post and prove me wrong.)

I do see those “rules” in blog posts occasionally, though. This makes me sad. We grammar bloggers (not Us grammar bloggers… *rolls eyes*) have an obligation not to spread misinformation about grammar. Seeing such posts also makes me feel very discouraged. Do you have any idea how often I begin reading a novel, only to set it aside in disgust because of the Very Bad Writing throughout? Well, probably not, because I don’t write reviews for such books any more — teh Internetz says its rong to have an opinion of any fiction novel you don’t heart as teh most uniquest thing evr OMG!!! lol!!! im such a fan!!!!!! (Yeah, that was painful for me to write, too. Now you begin to understand…)

I’m not talking about writing that is perceived as subjectively bad; we all have our own tastes in storytelling style, and while I may love richly detailed worldbuilding and a “slow burn” on the plot, you may prefer a novel that jumps right into the action and never relents, leaving most details of the setting to the reader’s imagination. Neither of these is wrong or “bad writing.” On the other hand, writing with a half-dozen homophone errors per page is objectively bad. (Even pantheists don’t believe boots have souls, and no one dawns a coat.) Writing in which there is never a comma to separate a direct address from the rest of a sentence is objectively bad. (Remember, commas help prevent cannibalism.) Writing in which the dialogue of five different characters is lumped into one massive paragraph, some of it inside double quotes and some of it punctuated as narration, is objectively bad.

Saying My stories are full of deep emotions and complex plots, so I don’t need to bother with all that tedious ‘punctuation’ nonsense is like saying you’re a highly skilled fencer because you have graceful footwork and perfect balance… and all the while, you don’t even know which end of the blade to point at your opponent.

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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2 Responses to Non-optional punctuation is, strictly speaking, non-optional.

  1. stephie5741 says:

    As an author, I’m always surprised how often published authors mess up commas…they seem to make their own rules. Copyeditors and editors are the BEST at catching those things, but read an author’s work before it goes through the editing process and you’ll get an eyeful!

    Stephanie
    http://stephie5741.blogspot.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do see a lot of writing before it goes through the editing process. That’s my job, after all. 🙂

      Have you read any of my “writing glitch” posts? The examples I use in those are all writing prompts borrowed from someone else’s blog, but they’re fairly typical of writing I see in unedited manuscripts (and sometimes in published novels, alas) in terms of grammar and punctuation (and impossible dialogue tags). At least when I’m editing, I can DO SOMETHING about the errors instead of just trying to ignore them.

      Like

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