Should you care about an Oxford comma?

by Darren Clare

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As lovers of language, we at Stratton Craig enjoy nothing more than a good old fashioned grammar debate.

So you can imagine our collective interest in the latest controversy hitting the writing world. It’ll come as no surprise to those in the UK that Brexit is involved, but for once this argument sits outside politics.

The item causing such a furore? The usually unremarkable 50 pence piece. A commemorative version has been minted to mark the moment the UK leaves the EU. So far, so standard. However, it’s the slogan inscribed on the back that has ruffled feathers. It states:  “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. A nice enough message, but the lack of an oxford comma has caused intense debate. 

What is an Oxford Comma?

Also called a serial comma, it’s a grammatical device that’s used in a list of three or more items. Its purpose is to clarify to a reader that all three points are separate. 

Below is a great example Julia McCoy used in her blog: 

Without an Oxford comma: I invited the acrobats, President Obama and the Queen of England to a party.

Someone reading the sentence above may assume that President Obama and the Queen of England are the invited acrobats, ready to put on a show for guests. The Oxford comma makes it clear that the acrobats, the president and the monarch are three completely separate entities that are all coming to the party. 

With an oxford comma: I invited the acrobats, President Obama, and the Queen of England to a party.

Why is it causing such a debate?

The oxford comma’s use within writing has less formal rules than other grammatical devices  – making its use open to interpretation, and therefore argument. A lot of brands view the use of them as a stylistic tool, going as far as to highlight in their tone of voice guidelines whether they do or don’t use them throughout their copy. This adds to a lack of cohesion, particularly within marketing communications.

On one side of the argument is the opinion that the reader would know from context that various items are separate without the need for an oxford comma. Taking the example above, common sense would dictate that Obama and the Queen are in fact not acrobats but guests. The other side of it argues that’s putting the onus on the reader to make that judgement, rather than using the writing to clearly direct the reader to the fact. 

So what’s our view?

Our lead strategist Claire believes it depends on the content (she WOULD say that). “There are some sentences whose meaning is substantially changed if you DON’T use the oxford comma. And my view is that punctuation is there to make the meaning as clear as possible to the reader. So I don’t think it makes sense to always use an oxford comma if it’s not adding clarity, but I think there are some situations, like the Brexit coin, which absolutely need it.”

That’s a view echoed across the team at Stratton Craig. We champion using language to make copy easier for consumers to read and understand. So in light of making your copy as digestible as possible, we believe it pays to use oxford commas where they are appropriate. 

What do you think?

An important part of writing, or an outdated bastion of language purists? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.    

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