The Writer’s Toolbox – Oh No!

Sometimes the littlest things can drive a writer?and an editor?around the bend. You want to ensure the text is as readable as possible, and that means consistency and fluidity. But It’s not always so easily achievable, is it? The other week I spent longer than I’d care to admit obsessing over whether to put a comma after “oh” in a particular expression. It’s an issue that feels like it should be common sense, except when it isn’t.

Ohs and Ahs
In general, the exclamatory oh and ah take a comma when they don’t form a standalone sentence fragment:

Example A: Ah, That’s more like it! Here, we follow the general rule and use a comma after ah.

Example B: Oh! I totally forgot about that. Here, oh forms a standalone sentence fragment and therefore takes an exclamation mark.

Incorrect Example C: Oh I thought you’d change your mind. This is incorrect because a comma after oh is required.

Corrected Example C: Oh, I thought you’d change your mind.

Note that I said “in general.” There are a few expressions with oh and ah that have become so common that the comma’s usually omitted for clarity and fluidity. “Oh no” and “Oh yeah” are two obvious examples; The Chicago Manual of Style also lists “ah yes” and “oh boy.”

Incorrect Example D: Oh, no! I hate this weather!

Corrected Example D: Oh no! I hate this weather! Here, even though the general rule would dictate a comma, the expression is common enough that It’s omitted.

Leave O Alone
Another exception is what’s called the vocative O?as in “O happy dagger!” from Romeo and Juliet. While it may crop up in poetry or older literature, It’s now considered obsolete in modern writing. On the rare occasion you do need to use and punctuate it, remember that O is not followed by a comma?and It’s always capitalized.

Example E (from Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven”):

Quick was the little maid’s reply,
O master! we are seven.

Incorrect Example F: We sang “O, Canada” today.

Corrected Example F: We sang “O Canada” today.

Make the Call
When faced with oh, ah, or O in your own writing, follow the general rule and the obvious exceptions whenever you can. But recognize, too, that language is in a constant state of flux. Particularly in fiction writing, rules and guidelines might not always cover every single situation. There are gray areas, and sometimes you have to make the call whether to apply a rule or an exception.

In next week’s column we’ll discuss what to do when You’re faced with an oh or ah that doesn’t fit neatly under the general rule or one of the exceptions. And then we’ll take it further?using a few specific examples, we’ll look at strategies for working your way through the gray area problems You’re sure to hit if you write and edit for long enough.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.