Oxford Comma? Copywriting 101

In the world of marketing and elsewhere, the question remains: to use the Oxford comma or to eliminate it?

Otherwise known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma remains a subject of considerable debate in multiple public and private circles. This notorious punctuation mark is succinctly defined by the Oxford University-affiliated Lexico as “an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.” Although it neglects to mention that the Oxford comma can also appear before the conjunction “or,” this definition matches the influential general writing style guidelines of the Associated Press (AP), which recommend employing an Oxford comma only when needed to prevent obvious cases of probable reader misinterpretation.

Oxford comma basics

Traditionally used by the editors and printers of the Oxford University Press, the Oxford comma is intended to prevent ambiguity and promote ready grammatical understanding by clearly demarcating all items in a series. Consider the following example presented by Lexico:

“These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.”

The Oxford comma before the penultimate “and” makes the color combinations above perfectly clear. But look what happens when the Oxford comma is omitted:

 “These items are available in black and white, red and yellow and blue and green.”

Colors blur into one another, making a real mess!

The Oxford comma in copywriting and other industries / sectors

Although widely used in academia, the Oxford comma has long been a matter of debate in sectors that range from journalism to law.

The legal implications of the Oxford comma recently became apparent through a $10-million class-action lawsuit involving a dairy company in Maine. As detailed by the leading editing and proofreading service provider Scribendi, this lawsuit centered on the following sentence: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” With no Oxford comma after “packing for shipment,” the exact exceptions for the shipment and/or distribution of the listed food products remain unclear.

In the world of marketing, the average copywriting agency is likely to let the client have the final word when it comes to including or omitting the Oxford comma. At BIGEYE, however, we tend to encourage the use of the Oxford comma to avoid problems such as those detailed both above and below.

Why the Oxford comma is important

In addition to the confusion inherent in the instances listed above, the Oxford comma is essential to avoid the misunderstandings that can arise when readers mistake appositives (which rename nouns) for items in a series or vise versa. You may have seen one or more widely circulated examples that drive this problem home using humor.

Take, for example, the sentence…

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.”

With the Oxford comma, it is perfectly clear that the book has three dedicatees. Now, look at the same sentence without the Oxford comma:

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

If read as an appositive, the phrase “Ayn Rand and God,” leaves the book dedicated to two people only…and a highly unlikely couple to have a child together!

For this reason among others, standard-bearers of scholarly writing such as the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and the Chicago Manual of Style recommend the consistent use of the Oxford comma.

The argument against the Oxford comma

In addition to the AP, many official style guides attempt to avoid the clutter of unnecessary punctuation by recommending that writers use the Oxford comma only when reader confusion is likely to occur. In many ways, this makes perfect sense. After all, the phrase “less is more” applies to all aspects of writing and should be actively employed to prevent wordiness and produce text that is easy on the eyes. 

But who is qualified to differentiate cases that may lead to misunderstandings from cases that will not? In short, writers who fail to consistently use the Oxford comma may easily miss language that will seem confusing and/or conflicted to a large number of readers.

Other Oxford comma detractors cite purely grammatical reasons for its omission. For example, consider the sentence “This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.” If mistaken for an appositive, “Ayn Rand” can, once again, be mistaken for the mother of the book’s author. If it is universally recognized as a tool for setting off items in a series, however, the use of the Oxford comma before “and” cannot be misinterpreted.

Getting professional help

When it comes to writing effective copy, the ultimate answer to the Oxford comma debate is best answered with the assistance of a skilled and knowledgeable marketing agency like Bigeye. A one-stop shop for all of your marketing needs, we offer a range of premium copywriting services.

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