The Writer’s Toolbox – Oh No! Part II

In last week’s Toolbox installment, we looked at when to add a comma after the exclamatory oh or ah, as in “Oh no!” (no comma) and “Oh, come on” (comma required). The general rule, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is to use the comma unless the oh or ah forms part of a particular, common expression (“oh boy” and “ah yes” are two more examples).

But what happens when you’ve got an expression That’s not covered by Chicago?but that just doesn’t seem to fit with the comma the general rule would suggest?

This week we’ll finish up our examination of oh and ah by taking it a lot further into the editing realm than you might have expected?the arena where sound judgment, intuition, and a sense of personal voice work hand in hand with established rules.

Oh my god
The expression “Oh my god” is a good example of when and how to bend or break the rules, particularly when You’re working with fiction. It’s quite a common expression, but The Chicago Manual of Style, at least, doesn’t seem to consider it on par with “oh no.” On the other hand, a sentence like “Oh, my god, Sarah, come on” sounds a little clunky. You’ve seen the Christopher Walken/William Shatner comma meme out there? Funny on social media, but you don’t want that in your writing if you can avoid it.

When the comma-or-no-comma conundrum crossed my desk some time ago, I did a lot of research. I checked blogs and dictionaries and usage guides and consulted colleagues, but I couldn’t find direct guidance or even general consensus on whether “Oh, my god” was preferable to “Oh my god.” That told me a lot.

Language isn’t always cut and dried, and sometimes you need to move forward. In this case, I reasoned that in some respects “Oh my god” has become as common as “oh boy” and “ah yes”?some authors even spell it all as one word (“omigod”). The teen characters in the book I was editing used it a lot. It was frequently used with direct address nouns, so the clunkiness I mentioned above would have popped up quite a bit, to the point where the dialogue might have felt stilted and awkward. There weren’t any similar expressions (like “oh, my stars”) that would have felt inconsistent if they took the comma and “oh my god” didn’t.

It felt like going with the exception rather than the general rule was the best direction to steer this gray-area question. Would I apply the decision-making process differently given a different set of circumstances?no direct address nouns, few instances, different genre and audience? I might. The key is consistency and clarity, and in this case a comma-less expression was the best way to achieve that.

Oh + expletive
A similar situation can crop up when you pair oh with an expletive?oh shit comes to mind?and you have to go through the whole analysis again. In this case, another consideration is the nature and tone of the story; there’s a difference between a teen narrator freaking out and saying oh shit oh shit oh shit mid-narrative with no punctuation at all, and the apes at the end of Spaceballs giving a very definite pause in their “Oh, shit. There goes the planet.”

When You’re faced with an oh or ah that doesn’t seem easily dealt with, or any other grayish writing concern, start by asking yourself these questions:

– Does this fall under a clear rule or a blurry area?
– How well do I understand the rule or principle or issue in question? What nuances might affect this situation? What is the rule trying to achieve?
– Is applying the rule here likely to distract the reader or enhance their reading experience? Vice versa?
– If deviation from the rule is advisable, am I prepared to apply this deviation consistently to all similar situations in the manuscript? What are the limitations of how I’ll be applying it?

Sometimes general rules need to be bent to accommodate the story, but understanding the rules and the purpose behind them positions you to make judgment calls on where and how to apply them, and how to ensure your decision-making process stays consistent within a manuscript.

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.

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