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To Oxford Comma, or Not to Oxford Comma, That Is the Question.

The Oxford comma, otherwise known as the “serial comma,” perhaps is one of the best ways to incite an online riot. Mention the two words, and almost all hell breaks loose. Everyone takes part, from marketers to writers to professors, and everyone has an opinion.

Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma is known as the “serial” because it appears when a series of items – at least three or more – are listed in a sentence: She brought a carryon, an oversized purse, and a briefcase onto the plane. The fact that the woman has brought too many items onto the plane shall be ignored, and the comma itself addressed.

Some people would argue that the third comma, which appears before the conjunction “and,” is unnecessary. They aren’t wrong. The third comma can be construed as a relic of a bygone era. Tradition states that its use became common because printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press used it.

Tradition notwithstanding, the viewpoint isn’t necessarily right in all instances. Some sentences do need the comma before the conjunction: This purse is available in black and white, brown and white, and gray and white. The serial comma aids the sentence; it averts potential confusion about what colors and patterns the purse comes in.

Oxford Commas - Serial CommaOther people would vehemently contest the idea that their opposition isn’t, in fact, wrong. They would cite style guides and perhaps even point to Oxford itself. Unfortunately, different style guides live by different rules, and Oxford University Press isn’t quite the uptight place it once was. It has softened over the years and given sway to contemporary usage.

The Oxford comma is never wrong, and it always helps the reader see the last two items in a series as separate entities. Because of that, the marketer handwringing her hands as she attempts to decide whether to use it can stop. She can use the serial comma as long as she is consistent with its use. (Vocus follows AP Style rules and omits the Oxford comma.)

The marketer has two choices. She can use the Oxford comma with any occurrence of a series of items or only when it clarifies matters as in the case of the purse. If she falls on the side of the former, she must do her best to use the serial comma throughout the copy.

Not only that, she must use the Oxford comma consistently with all copy. It doesn’t do to use the Oxford comma in an email newsletter but follow a different set of rules when writing blog posts, news releases or website copy. Consistency is key, and having a style guide singular to the company or agency in question can ensure it. The style guide dictates big-picture items such as logo usage and color schemes as well as small – oh, so small! – things like the Oxford comma.

Erin Feldman is director of editorial services at Tenacity5 and author of Write RightClick here to get more of Erin’s grammar, marketing and PR tips.

Images: lauraholin, Leo Reynolds (Creative Commons)

About Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is the director of editorial services at Tenacity5 Media. When she isn’t researching, writing, and editing blog posts and white papers, she writes poetry and essays, draws her favorite Write Right character, and plans what art form to study next. She’s based in Austin, Texas and can be found on Twitter @erinmfeldman.

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