A Conversation with my muse

For the life of me I cannot figure out why certain things catch my attention and others float past with barely a mental nod.  Odd little things, like commas. First it was the Oxford comma.  Now it’s the Comma Splice.

“Why commas?” I asked my muse. “Why do I care? It’s a little strange, don’t you think?”

There’s a deep silence, then a barely perceptible shrug .  “Why not?” he purrs.

“But it’s not earthshakingly important. It’s not like commas affect the global template of things like politics, banking or the environment.”

“It’s a power thing,” he says.

“What? Power? Are you crazy?”

“Maybe,” he says, ” but look at it this way. You don’t have any control in the political arena, and it’s hard to save an iceberg when you live in California, unless it’s lettuce in the garden. But commas. You do have power over those. It’s the little kingdom of grammar and punctuation that you can do something about. Ooops.”


“Ended a sentence with a preposition. Hah, you didn’t even notice.” 

“Did too.”

“Right. So, take your pick. Feel helpless at not being able to save the world. Lie awake at night worrying about bailouts,  global warming, or which despot might set off a nuclear bomb….or get control of your commas.”

“I see your point.”

So, what’s the comma issue this time?


“Is that something like wire splicing?”

“How do you know about wire splicing? You’re just a cat.”

“That’s rude. Be nice or I’ll leave.”


“You forget that I pay attention to everything. You should know better. Isn’t the old man an electrician? All these years I’ve been watching. You think I haven’t picked up a few things about the electrical trade? I’m going to leave and find a good napping place.” 

“No, no. Don’t leave. I just didn’t figure you’d be interested in electrical wiring.”

“You know you’ve digressed quite a bit here in this blog. Why don’t you get to the point?”

“Yes, thanks. So…I was reading articles on grammar tonight and the one that caught my attention was about comma splices. It wasn’t a term that was used when I was in school, so I looked it up. It’s really nothing more than a run-on sentence, but the term bothers me for some reason.”

“Please go on. This is fascinating,” he says, no longer purring, but getting heavy lidded.

“You’re being sarcastic, but I have no one else to tell this to, so try to stay awake.”

A deep sigh from my muse, but I plunge forward. “A splice is the joining of two things, like wires and wood. Now I’m all for the joining together of things, but not when it is two independent clauses joined together by a weak little blip of a comma. It’s like two sentences trying to get in on one ticket. It’s not ethical.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Give me an example.”

“I thought you’d never ask, I have one right on the tip of my tongue.”

“Aha! I caught you.”

“You are paying attention, aren’t you? O.k. Here’s another one. 

“Wire connectors are ideal for splicing multiple electrical wires together, they come in a wide variety of sizes and types.”

“You couldn’t resist the electrical plug could you? No pun intended.”

“You’re so funny.”

 “O.k. Grammar Geek. Pray tell, how does one solve this grammatical atrocity?”

“It’s so simple. Usually a period works. Or, when appropriate, a connecting word like ‘and’ or ‘but’.  But it’s the term ‘comma splice’ that still grates on my senses. It doesn’t fit. It draws all the attention to the comma giving it some misplaced validity.”

My muse’s eyes are closed, so I’m on my own. Then it comes like a flash.

“Oh wait! I know why it bothers me. A splice usually refers to the joining of two things that are meant to be together, like rope or wire or film. But in this case, splicing together two complete sentences is a grammatical error. Only in the use of commas is a splice not a good thing. What were they thinking?”

He opens one eye, looking askance at me. “You know, my purpose here is to inspire creative flow, not to be a sounding board for your meditations on these technical anomalies.”

“I’m almost done. I was just thinking that the term ‘run-on sentence’ was what we used when I went to school. That term actually defines and identifies the grammatical problem. ‘Run-on sentence’ was good enough for me and my generation.”

“I think your showing your age.”

“Hmm. You might be right.  Maybe I’ll take a nap with you.”


The Oxford comma

Strunk and White call it the serial comma., but I can’t think ‘serial’ without finishing it with ‘…..killer’. So the discovery that this speciality comma is aka the Oxford comma has strangely captured my attention. It has also given the serial comma the proper attention and respect it deserves.

Who cares about the Oxford comma? Obviously not the musicians  in Vampire Weekend. Why should anyone  else care? Such a seemingly insignificant comma, it looks just like its country cousins, but it has a noble purpose in life….that of minimizing ambiguity. I’m all for that. Clarity, conviction, and confidence that you’ve communicated exactly what you intended.

I don’t know how I could have overlooked this fascinating gramatical mark in my studies. Must be that I wasn’t travelling in the right grammar circles.  For anyone who needs a refresher, here is the Oxford comma defined:

The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used immediately before a grammatical conjunction that precedes the last item in a list of three or more items.apple-raisin-pie

As in: “For dessert, we have peach, apple, and raisin pie.” The Oxford comma separates the apple and the raisin, giving you a choice between 3 pies. So what’s the big deal? If you take out the last comma, you might be surprised to find raisins mixed into your apple pie.

Or: Her mail indicated she was taking classes in creative writing, science fiction and Elvish. Now is that two courses? Or three? This sentence definitely needs an Oxford comma. Not all item lists do if the meaning is obvious.

Some newspaper style guides are apparently opposed to its use. Maybe they consider it superflous, excessive, and redundant? It is a space-saving decision? I suppose that there could be an argument for the elimination of the Oxford comma, if someone could determine how many trees were saved. After weighing all the pros and cons, I am definitely a fan, but not slavishly. To live up to its noble objective, it should be used when it fulfills its purpose: increasing clarity….minimizing ambiguity.

 This humble little comma actually has quite a devoted following of fans.  There are two Facebook groups dedicated to the Oxford comma, one know as The Oxford Comma and the other, “Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma”.  

Why does the name Oxford Comma intrigue me so?  Maybe because I love my English roots, the Queen, and a good British accent.

Other references to the Oxford (also known as the Harvard comma):

 Can you find the Oxford commas in this posting? Come on. I dare you.

Yours truly, The Grammar Geek