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Copywriting 101: Understanding When to Use the Oxford (Serial) Comma

Copywriting 101: Why So Serial?

Posted by: Dan | Categories:  Content Marketing

While there are many "unbreakable" rules of writing, some (very few) are ultimately left up to the discretion of the content creator and depend heavily on the nature of the content itself.

One of the most historically controversial topics related to style and punctuation involves the use, and arguable overuse, of commas in a series. This practice of including a comma before the final item in a series, often called the serial comma, is also known more notoriously as the Oxford comma.

According to the Associated Press Stylebook, the accepted standard within the news industry, "Commas in a series are for clarity and prevention of ambiguities. In a simple series, AP doesn't use a comma before the last item."

Simple series according to AP Style:

We can provide logo design, website development and print collateral.

Most loyalists of the AP's guidelines would argue that including an additional comma before the conjunction "and" is unnecessary and also terribly redundant. Furthermore, it simply takes up extra space on the page when considering the layout of an actual newspaper or printed piece.

Despite the fact that its omission is strictly practiced by nearly every news outlet in the country, there do exist more complex instances that demand its presence in an effort to avoid ambiguity.

Complex series requiring additional comma:

We would like to thank our clients, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny.

Without the inclusion of the additional comma in this series, it would appear that our only clients are, in fact, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Complex series omitting additional comma:

We would like to thank our clients, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Other authorities on the matter, like The American Psychological Association, provide their own list of stylistic writing guidelines that consistently encourage its use for this very reason.

"There are various aesthetic and technical arguments for why serial (Oxford) commas should or should not be used. Although they aren’t required in journalistic writing, a distinct advantage of using serial commas is clear, unambiguous language, which is a necessity in scientific writing."

Creating clear and effective copy is just as essential to communicating a strong brand identity as an elegantly designed logo or a user-friendly website. Establishing consistency throughout all of these elements poses one of the greatest challenges for a team of writers and designers.

"There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken." excerpt from "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" by Lynne Truss

Comma Use and Search Engine Optimization

Your comma usage can affect a reader's ability to digest your message, but what about search engines?

John Mueller, Google's Webmaster Trends Analyst, was quoted in a recent article from Search Engine Round Table regarding commas and SEO. He stated that the use of commas within meta title tags is "entirely up to you." So the next time you are creating a new page of content on your website, don't hesitate to include commas in your title tags where you feel they are necessary. 

Looking to find guidance or direction for your marketing messages? Discover how original content and creative copywriting can enhance your existing strategies. 

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