My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mailbox- Giving Thanks and the Oxford Comma

Family is awesome. For realsies.
Do I realize how lucky I am to be a househusband so that I can stay home and write? What is my opinion on the Oxford comma?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday as long as I have enough to do.  (If not, I'll stockpile questions until I do, and do something else in the interim Fridays.)  Until/unless I have more questions than I can handle, I'll answer anything that has anything to do with writing.]  

Anonymous Writes: 

I read that you are a househusband and that gives you the opportunity to write.  Some of us aren't this blessed in our lives and writing every day isn't so easy as it is for you.  Do you realize how good you've got it?

There are a few answers to this question, and I'll start with the most knee-jerk defensive and work my way to the most appropriate.

First of all, I should point out that I work 35+ hours a week on house cleaning, 15 hours a week as a supplemental instructor at a community college for spending money, and another 30+ hours a week on this blog, currently for less pay than your average sweatshop worker, to which I add various other writing and reading.  So depending on whether you consider writing "real work" or not (and if you don't....I hate you), I work somewhere between 70 and 85+ hours a week.

I'm not exactly a gentleman of leisure.

Secondly, you probably want to check your assumptions about how idyllic my domestic life is.   There's a reason there's a tired cliche about the husband who thinks his wife just sits around watching soaps, and there's a reason that the cliche housewives who hear that from their cliche husbands usually feel under appreciated, get pissed, and ask if he'd like to give it a try.  Then something about conveyor belts of chocolate and an explosion of rice....or something.  I live with two other people, and I do 90% of the cleaning.  I clean an average of 30 hours a week.  I clean dishes, polish hardwood floors, do some shopping, vacuum, take care of four cats, and usually do it all again the next day.  And on a good week the place doesn't look TERRIBLE.  Back when we used to audit with hours and wages and stuff to make sure no one was getting taken advantage of, it was clear that I was more than paying for my room, board, and medical insurance, even if my imaginary wage was on the very low end of housekeeper pay.  I was making enough over what I cost that the occasional dental emergency or computer disaster would be covered--which is good for me because I have a strange and horrible habit of slamming my face, teeth first, into my hard drive.  These days we dont audit with a calculator, but I still keep track of how much time I spend cleaning, so we have a rough idea where the balance goes.  So it's not really like I'm being "kept" or taken care of or anything.  I have to carve out the time I spend writing, and there are days I'd much prefer to be shooting deathclaws in Fallout: New Vegas.

Third, while I don't think every opportunity will afford itself to every person, those who prioritize writing within their lives will find ways to create time and space for what is important to them.  For people who have a career and kids, I'm sure it is much harder to find time to write.  I don't think it is so impossible that it can't be done, but it certainly will be more challenging.  I have made a lot of decisions consciously and directly with writing in mind.  At first it seemed like I was being foolish about my future, but as more and more aspiring writers have laid down their pens when their careers took off or the kids came along, I have discovered that my choices have made a big difference in my resiliency.  I don't have a car.  I don't own a house.  I don't have children.  I've quit "real jobs."  I've turned down promotions.  I make very little money.  I go to bookstores and look longingly at the shelves and wonder how good my overdraft protection is.  I consider each meal I eat out.  I mull any purchase of over a couple hundred dollars for weeks.  Each life decision is weighed not against creature comforts, status, wealth, what the Joneses have, what will pimp my ride, or the American Dream, but against writing and the time to do so.

A lot more people could find more time in their lives for writing if they were willing to make sacrifices.  They wouldn't even have to sell their kids, ship their spouse to Guam, or quit their job to become a hobo, but even playing fewer video games, watching less TV, or writing through a lunchbreak is anathema to most people.  Most people LOVE writing....but not that much.   Or they want to be a writer "so bad it hurts"....but not so much they "lose their head" over it.  It takes a special kind of wank to prioritize writing over family or career.  So before you envy my writing time, ask yourself if you would be equally comfortable pushing middle age but renting a room, having a part time job, and having to ask people you might want to date if they can pick you up from the BART.  (I've missed out on enough opportunities to get laid that I'm all too well aware of how conscious my choices have been.)  Ask yourself even if you'd be willing to give up Breaking Bad or Walking Dead or Facebook time or an hour of sleep.

Time is a limited resource, and most people's lives reflect their priorities more accurately than they might be comfortable with because they involve hundreds--even thousands of decisions.  I find most people envious of my writing time would only actually have time to write themselves if they also possessed a Hermione time watch, and that is less about not having time and more about not having priorities.  If you have priorities, the time will come naturally.  You may not find yourself as the roommate of two high paid career chasers who hate housework, but if your choices always reflect that writing is your highest priority (or very high), doors will open.  It may mean decisions our society deems "inappropriate" (like being a grown man who still rents a room or marrying for money or something) but if you want to be a writer, you better get ready to be the pariah anyway.  Might as well start early.

Lastly, yes.  I am grateful.  I am intensely grateful about my family.  They are amazing and wonderful and supportive and some of the awesomest peeps in all of peepdom.  When I do "30 Days of Thanksgiving" it's really easy because it's just "My Family" thirty times.  Even though the math works out and no one is giving anyone a free ride, I have a commute that involves walking "down the stairs."  I can work a whole day in my pajamas.  I set my own hours (as long as they are enough).  I have a really good situation for the sorts of things I get meaning from out of life, and I never forget how epic that opportunity is as well as the people who have made it possible.

M Writes:

What is your opinion of the Oxford comma in prose.

My opinion of most contested grammar or grammar in flux is to learn the reasoning for both sides, and make an informed decision, and then stick with it. If you approach that shit like there's a right side, you're going to spend more time than you ever thought possible arguing with other pedants, and at that point you might as well join a pineapple on pizza, which way the TP goes on the roll, and GIF pronunciation forum for all the good it'll do you. If you aren't consistent, it looks like you don't really know or care about the rule.

The reason people leave it out is valid.  Languages are living things that evolve, and one of the current trends in English towards minimalism and removing extraneous punctuation. Fighting for language to never change is not only futile, but it also makes it more difficult for you to actually communicate, not less.

Do people use "moot" wrong? Yep. Does "begging the question" mean something totally different from raising the question? Yep. Does "the prodigal son" have nothing to do with a prodigy and is actually kind of an insult? Yep. And it's good for a writer to know that. But it's also good for a writer to know how people actually use language.

The problem with that "my way's right" is two-fold.

1) There is no demarcation line in which linguistic drift changes from "a mistake" to "well of course that's not right." If you've read Chaucer, chances are you've actually read a translation--but that used to be English. (And let me tell you, I lament the lack of "nether yeya" in bedroom talk.)  Nice used to mean simple and stupid. Artificial used to be a good thing. Even the prescriptivist "battles" are subject to the currents and eddies of what is chic to care about.  For centuries no one worried about using "literally" or "decimate" in the ways that are today considered uninformed. No one can tell you exactly at what point a change is valid (100 years?, 1942?, whatever I learned in high school even though that was thirty years ago?) and usually it's pretty much whatever they say goes. Do I even need to tell you how obnoxious that is?

2) The current score is Descriptivists: 9,789,244,234,976  Prescriptivists: 0 No one cares how people "ought" to use language. They use it the way people around them do. And while there are a few people who know what's right, they aren't enough to stop linguistic drift. Ever.

Language changes. Get over it.

Also gatekeepers are pedants. Another thing worth getting over.

Commas cause readers to pause, even if they are not reading out loud, and the smooth flow of a turn of phrase may feel better without.  Prose rhythm is extremely important to some writers and punctuation feels like it undermines the sleek elegance of a sentence, so they use as little as possible. While they are almost always appropriate in expository writing, prose is an art form where the grammar should serve the meaning.

However, if you are soliciting my personal opinion, I use it. It will never cause confusion to be there. It will only cause confusion if it should be there but it isn't. It can't hurt you; it can only help you. And most people––MOST PEOPLE––don't know well enough when it's okay to take it out anyway.

It also slows a reader down to consider if you meant the last items separately or as a unit, so unless you intend to be directly messing with the language or enjoying a delightful ambiguity, it's possible you just pulled a reader out of your story to think about what your grammar meant--probably the opposite of what you want--at least most of the time.

Plus if you submit, there's a chance you may find a gatekeeper who thinks you don't know the rule and made an error. (Or worse, you find a gatekeeper who DOES understand the current debate, but is an intractable pro-Oxford monkey warrior to the point of a negative bias against all those who take it out. And yes, they exist!) There is almost no chance that a gatekeeper will care equally if the comma is there in a situation where it's possible to remove it.


  1. In theory I have no problem with leaving out the Oxford comma, but in practice most people who do just leave it out all the time, even when they need it.

    1. That's true. I think one of the useful things about just having it is how often its absence is muddling. However, I think that's part of the reason some people like leaving it out. It's like a badge of honor to do it correctly. When I teach it to people who are aware that it's not required, I make sure they know the mnemonic "If in doubt, don't leave it out."

  2. I am very happy to see the topic of today's post.


    1. Believe it or not, this post and our conversation were completely coincidental.

  3. I've written Al my life. From the first barely a paragraph scribblings in a diary to the 20+ pages that composed my teen journal. No matter what path my life takes, I've always made space for my craft.

    Primarily I write memoir. But I short-story it when I want to leave out identifiers when it comes to the characters.

    I'm always willing to sacrifice an activity I like for writing which I love. #Priorties