Oxford Commas, Colons, and Videotape

by Emily Kemme

During a family dinner a couple weeks ago my fellow writer and brother-in-law and I were comparing our current writing projects. Somewhere into my second Old Fashioned, the discussion turned to commas. While his current writing falls squarely in the business genre — and mine weaves between fiction, recipe creation, journalism and musings based on the hat I’m wearing on any given day  — we found common ground in the tiniest bit of real estate: the Oxford comma.

Don’t yawn just yet.

There is great debate on whether “to use” or “not to use” the Oxford comma. AP style — the one newspapers use — prohibits it, considering it redundant, preferring to reorganize sentences to fit within inches, opting for conciseness over prose. The string of commas in a list presents the Oxford as the last comma, a metaphorical last word of sorts, one that can be struck for brevity’s sake. Prose, on the other hand, is happy with commas littered here and there amongst the words. Prose believes a comma is the equivalent of taking a breath. Breathe in, read, think, and savor an idea.

I could go into a dissertation about the merits of Oxford commas, or why they’re a headache inducer when you are writing both novels (the Oxford comma is required) or stories headed for newspapers (keep your Oxford comma out of my newsprint). Like I’ve said, that is simply a “which hat is on my head” thing  — or at times, the position of hands on the clock, assuming clocks have hands, which most don’t, these days. Clocks with hands are an anachronism, dinosaurs from the previous century.

Commas are guidelines, making reading easier to follow

Before we go further, I want to reassure you this is not a blog post about punctuation rules. I’ll admit right here I’m not great at remembering off the top of my head if a clause is supposed to end with a comma, a semi-colon, or if I’m listing, a colon. Often I end up screaming at myself for riddling a sentence with commas (or breaths, as you recall). I’m not a walking reference book for whether commas go inside or outside quotation marks, don’t remember if a title should be placed between quotation marks or typed as italics, or have a strong opinion about whether sentences divided by a semicolon are just plain irritating. All this is what Grammar Girl is for.

But I read in my local newspaper today that the only book store in my town will close its doors this month. So, I am curious. What do readers want to read these days? Or do readers want to read at all? Would they prefer to not hop, skip, or stumble over commas, colons, or periods and instead make their lives easier with texted abbreviations like “LOL,” a thumb’s up emoji, or my personal favorite,”Where r u?” This last because it’s the easiest way to locate various family members, much easier than getting up out of my chair to go search the house for them.

Is reading, like commas, going the way of the dinosaurs?

After spending three hours last Sunday night marveling at the glitz and sparkle on stage at the 90th Academy Awards show, I wonder at times if movies and the ability we have to video our activities on smartphones has displaced the desire for reading the written word at all. Why limit your world to black and white when someone else can tell you the story, accompanied by beautiful imagery.

I believe there is still reason for reading. It has everything to do with the sound of silence. We live today with endless audio input: audiobooks, podcasts, the news on TV, and our wave machines simulating the sounds of nature as we ease into sleep.

But if we revisited the purpose of silence, we might recapture the importance of reading.


A little story about a walk along the beach.

My mother sent me a few lines typed into an email the other day, a little vignette that seems to underscore the need for silence:

As I walked on the beach yesterday in the fog I was thinking, “This is a little disconcerting as very few people seem to be around.”

Well, first I saw some of the little birds that we had not seen yet this year on South Padre, the ones that scurry around the sand. Then, yup, more birds and a few washed up jellyfish.

“This is more like it,” I thought.

Then, I saw two large bouquets in vases on the sand. I wondered what that was about . . . just vases.

As I continued my walk, I began to see more walkers. A young woman joined me; she commended me on my choice of warm clothing. “You’re the only one dressed right with this fog, we’re all cold. Where are you from?” she asked.

I told her and asked her the same. “Bulgaria,” the young woman said.

A circus performer, she has trained monkeys who ride on the backs of dogs. When she first emigrated to the US she was an acrobat; now as she is older, she performs with her animals. Her husband, an attorney, works alongside her in the act and also performs legal work for the circus. And their child is educated on virtual TV, the family traveling in a trailer across the country to wherever the circus stops.

“Now [my mother wrote], I’ve never had the opportunity to meet a circus performer.”

On my return walk, the fog was lifting and the sun was coming out.

And the flower bouquets became a wedding ceremony which I saw on the way back from my walk.

Reading develops imagination and what we see in our mind’s eye

Humans have the ability to reënvision what we observe in the world around us. The visual is captured in our mind’s eye, the place in the brain where imagination lurks, allowing us to recall images to create our own movies. The same is true when we read. When I read my mother’s email, the images began to develop on the stage in my mind.

Waves crash against sand, the red-and-white stripes of a circus tent, monkeys shrieking as they play with the dogs, age-old vows are entered into, a family is created.

Breathe, inhale. Can you smell the briny ocean air? I hear the gulls squawking as they wheel in the sky above us. The fog lifts, there is a sparkle on the water. A new day has begun, vivid in my imagination.


Where is your favorite spot in the world to find silence?

Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished,  https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @EmFeedsYou . Life inspired. Vodka tempered.

Interested in reading Emily’s new award-winning novel, Drinking the Knock Water: A New Age Pilgrimage? Find it on Amazon and in Indie bookstores.

Like this blog post? Subscribe to get the latest from Feeding the Famished!


Related Articles


Elizabeth Harris March 12, 2018 - 10:22 pm

Thank you for sharing this Lori. The Oxford comma is dear to me!

Alison Hamling March 12, 2018 - 11:11 am

I love this. I say yes, yes, and yes to the Oxford comma!!!!

Anonymous March 12, 2018 - 10:58 am

I am all about the Oxford “comma”. We were taught (obviously, in the old days) to use punctuation for a purpose and were graded severely on it. Not only do you pause, but it can make a difference in how the reader reads the sentence, paragraph, etc. Now we only add one space between sentences, and I had to help my blind friend with a book to find this out. Contractions are another problem for many. Oh, I could go on, but I choose to leave my thoughts here. I look forward to your musing each month Emily, and thank you. Lynette

Lynne Hugo March 11, 2018 - 11:19 am

This is a lovely piece! And I also loved what your mother wrote. Easy to see where you got your story-telling talent.

Joanne Allen Eskildsen March 11, 2018 - 10:53 am

Totally oblivious about the Oxford COMMA, but I can tell you the COLON means something totally different to me.

Susan Athey March 11, 2018 - 10:52 am

I’d rather read than watch a video any day. I love silence.

Janet Adams March 11, 2018 - 10:51 am

Good article Emily! The comma conversion was a fun read. I also prefer reading and the silent peaceful time.

Monica March 10, 2018 - 9:08 pm

That’s South Padre! When asked what we do down there. I say live… walk the beach, cook, eat out, sit on the jetty and watch the ships and freighters and perhaps best watch the pelicans and gulls . And of course watch the Herons. There’s one in particular who lives by the jetty and waits for fish

S. March 10, 2018 - 2:24 pm

Nice work, Emily Kemme! I’m still enjoying the silence, even after I read your piece. Thank you – S

Jennifer Stimson March 10, 2018 - 11:16 am

This is lovely way to consider silence. It’s about reading, writing and simply being. Thank you, Emily Kemme!

Emily Kemme March 10, 2018 - 11:17 am

Thank you, Jennifer!

Anna Smoot March 10, 2018 - 10:15 am

I love a good Oxford comma. So much.

Tanya O'Connor March 9, 2018 - 9:42 pm

I stick by my right to use the oxford comma. I agree with the belief that commas allow for pauses or breaths, and I think most of us would benefit from slowing down a little and breathing more.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.