What’s up with the Oxford comma, Copywriters?
There’s a bad joke that perfectly illustrates what the Oxford comma is all about. You’ve probably heard the punchline already––it was the inspiration for the title of Lyn Truss’ best-selling book about the vicissitudes of punctuation, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.”
A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires at the other patrons.
“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amid the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m a panda, ain’t I?” he says. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
The argument goes that the list should feature a comma after ‘shoots’ to avoid a syntactical ambiguity. It’s call the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by Oxford University Press editors in all their academic tomes. You can see another fun example below, care of grandma.
Confessions of a self-confessed grammar nerd
I started my career as an academic in an English Department, so essentially my formative writing years were spent being beaten around the head with the Oxford comma until I grew to love it.
It’s still required by most academic writing style guides globally, and I can’t ignore it’s usefulness for the long, complicated sentences used prolifically in academia.
But when I began writing media releases on a daily basis (in my other life/career as a PR copywriter), journalists receiving said releases were equally rabid about leaving the Oxford comma out.
My two cents for working copywriters
Over the years, I’ve learned to compromise. For those passionate about this debate, I know I’ll be accused of committing the ultimate betrayal, but needs must.
I reserve expressing my personal regard for the Oxford comma for my academic and creative writing, where it’s likely to be well received (or at least resolutely ignored). For everything else––media releases, articles, etc––I omit it.
Why? Because it’s my job to ensure my words are getting through to the right people for the right reasons. And I figure it’s hard enough making sure your brand communications are reaching their target audience in this crazy world of information overload and AI-generated content without worrying whether a reader’s strong emotions about a little squiggle might eclipse your message.
So, if you’re working with me and you feel strongly either way about the Oxford comma, let me know. I’m quite at home to either option.
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