English grammar is generally pretty black and white, but there are a few areas under debate. For instance, should a series of three have one or two commas? For example:

The coach was black, dusty, and large.


The coach was black, dusty and large.

What happens if I write a novel using the first example, but the publisher/editor 'corrects' it to the second example? Do I have any say in the matter?

Note: I realize this is a hotly debated topic for some people, so please refrain from debating which example is correct. That is not the question.

  • Tolkien had little clout on the Hobbit but he won over spelling anyway. But the times have changed.
    – Joshua
    Jul 17, 2017 at 1:13
  • I got around this by contracting to provide camera-ready copy, i.e. a PDF. I had to learn the principles of book typesetting, which has its own interest, but I also collected an extra fee on it. The editor submitted marked-up PDFs to me and I made the final decisions. I should also state that he was at pains to make it clear that it was my book, not his, and he certainly did provide some valuable advice. And some meaning changes, which I rejected with an explanation. And I did state I would be using Oxford commas up front.
    – user207421
    Jul 18, 2017 at 3:25
  • 2
    You don't even have control over the capitalisation of your title! Jul 18, 2017 at 14:39
  • 1
    That capitalization is also less legible than ordinary sentence case.
    – Hobbes
    Jul 18, 2017 at 17:15
  • 2
    Actually never mind. You only capitalize that way for titles of works of art, not titles in general. My mistake. Jul 18, 2017 at 17:23

5 Answers 5

  1. English grammar is anything but black and white. Everything is debatable, even the definition of "word".

  2. Punctuation is not grammar. This is a punctuation question, not a grammar question.

  3. Your publisher probably has a preferred style guide that they want their authors to use.

  4. Everything is negotiable. Negotiations are all about who has the most clout. If you say, "Use the Oxford comma or I take this to Penguin," then if they say "Don't let the door hit you on the way out," you know who has the most clout in that relationship. Cormac McCarthy uses unorthodox punctuation. Cormac McCarthy has clout. Depending on the potential of your book, you may or may not have clout. Or they may just not care whether you use the Oxford comma or not.

  5. Oxford comma FTW.

  • 4
    i like this answer quite a lot
    – cat
    Jul 16, 2017 at 23:09
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    Yes, please use the Oxford comma! Bonus points if a character finds something written without the Oxford comma and points it out as being poor form. :D
    – sirjonsnow
    Jul 17, 2017 at 17:51
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    @KenMohnkern, unless you have clout. Never underestimate the power of clout!
    – user16226
    Jul 17, 2017 at 18:47
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    Not an OC user, but have 0 problem with reading them. I'd like to think an editor would be OK with either, as long as you aren't capriciously inconsistent about it (obviously for periodicals like newspapers they'd want the consistency within the periodical).
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 17, 2017 at 19:03
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    @MarkBaker - True. And maybe it's good to pretend we're more cloutful than we think we are. Jul 17, 2017 at 20:42

It also depends on if you're a stylist. The really great artists saw the rules, knew the rules, then broke the rules. Many writers ignore grammar, for the sake of the narrator, of dialect, of stream-of-consciousness. What matters more than which comma goes where is your heart, your story, your language, the power of your words. Now, I'm not sure what kind of book you're writing---you may very well would do good to pay attention to said rules---but just know the rules are not always heeded, and, sometimes, celebrated when broken.

  • 2
    Yes, but not as a consistent rule. If my story is aided by temporarily ignoring the rules of grammar, I will be all means do it. I'm talking more about the rules as a whole. Jul 16, 2017 at 22:05
  • 1
    This answer is not better for all the rules it broke to illustrate its point.
    – Caleb
    Jul 18, 2017 at 21:17
  • Please enlighten me as to what rules were broken, and why they shouldn't have been. Nov 22, 2017 at 9:39

I have hung around with a number of writers of note and I was married to a NYT best-selling author. I can tell you that not a single on of them was concerned about the grammatical changes, unless, as August noted above, it is for a certain affectation. The grammar police (no doubt a fresh college grad) will be there to proof the manuscript and ensure continuity and clarity, which is a good thing. The grammatical changes are based on the accepted usage, as defined by the publishing house and if you argue with your editor over it, it just paints a picture of you as a neophyte at best or a difficult person at worst. If sales are lack-luster, this could be the thing that prevents your second book from being published.

Rest assured, there will be changes to your manuscript. The editor will make the most substantive changes. It pays to listen to the editor. They have many years of experience in the business and are there to help improve your writing. I would argue that many famous writer's work suffers because they are too successful to listen to their editors. Stephen King comes to mind as an example - Arguably his best works were written when he was younger and the editors held more sway.

  • 2
    I'm not opposed to the editors changing things, certainly. I just find the lack of the Oxford Comma illogical and actually quite difficult to read. I find that it changes the tone of what I write on occasion. That is why I would like my novels to use it. Jul 17, 2017 at 19:52
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    There are exceptions, I should note, and pardon me if you already know this rule: it's called the green eggs and ham rule. You could use the Oxford comma consistently in your novel, as would be wise--consistency is the greatest trait--but when it comes to certain things that have to be grouped together and never separated, it's null and void. A character could say he ate "bacon, eggs, and toast." Nothing wrong with that. Or "coffee, French toast, and ham." Also fine. But they cannot say "toast, green eggs, and ham." Green eggs and ham go together. Jul 17, 2017 at 20:04
  • 1
    @Augustcanaille. That's not an exception to the Oxford comma rule. That's the reason for the Oxford comma rule.
    – user16226
    Jul 19, 2017 at 0:33

After spending ten years as a micro publisher, allow me to state the following:

1) Non-fiction should be written using "book English," meaning it should be as clean, clear, grammatically, syntactically, and lexically correct as possible because the purpose of the book is principally to convey information. Clarity is king.

2) When it comes to fiction, should you have a publisher that insists their way is correct and won't talk to you about it, find another publisher. Fiction is more about emotion than it is conveyance of information.

An excellent example (though non-English) is the Finnish book Tuntematon Sotilas (The Unknown Soldier). Written Finnish is a notoriously grammar-heavy language, but the spoken language has dialects just like English. The author (Väinö Linna) chose to "write" the dialects. Finnish is phonetic, so it wasn't hard to write the dialects --- but it's painful to read! That, of course, was part of the point. The author wanted his dialog to be culturally accurate, which meant breaking nearly every rule in one of the most grammatically structured languages on Earth.

Tell your publisher that you're willing to work with their editors to make a superior book --- and then do so (please!). Take advantage of their expertise and remember they have a lot of experience building marketable books. But contractually reserve the final decision to yourself. If they won't do this for a work of fiction, find another publisher. Remember, they're a business, you're an artist, both needs must be met or the book will have a tough mountain to climb for success.

  • 5
    I'm the author of a substantial technical book, and I have to say the copy-editors did their best to destroy it. Commas are essential to keep technical prose unambiguous, and copy-editors will get it wrong unless they have a deep understanding of the meaning. They also failed to grasp, for example, that I deliberately used "stylesheet" when referring to XSLT and "style sheet" when referring to CSS, because those are the terms the two specifications use. Stick to your guns. That's assuming, of course, that you are a good writer. If you aren't, then accept all the help that they offer. Jul 18, 2017 at 9:32

I would think that one should use proper grammar, unless speaking about or speaking of or for ethnic groups, and attributing certain dialects or manner-of-speaking to diverse characters.

  • 3
    There is a debate over which way is 'proper'. In the event that the publisher/editor doesn't agree with your assessment of the grammatical rules, do you have any say in which interpretation of the grammar they use? That is the question. Jul 18, 2017 at 17:38

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