Eternal Copywriting Debates #2: The Oxford Comma
By FELICITY VAN RYSBERGEN
Copywriters are generally an unassuming lot – it goes with the territory.
Our raison d’etre is a solitary one – our native habitat is generally a quiet corner of the room, smushing together words and fussing over punctuation marks.
But if there’s any one thing that can get our collective blood boiling, it’s the Oxford Comma.
What is this thing you call the Oxford Comma?
There’s a bad joke that perfectly illustrates what the Oxford Comma debate is all about. You’ve probably heard the punchline already – it was the inspiration for the title of Lynn Truss’ bestselling book about the vicissitudes of punctuation.
A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires it at the other patrons.
“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst 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,” 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 called the Oxford Comma because it was traditionally used by Oxford University Press editors in all their academic tomes. You’ll see another fun example in the gallery below, care of grandma.
Confessions of a self-confessed grammar nerd.
I started out as an academic in English, so essentially my formative writing years were spent being beaten about the head with the Oxford Comma until I grew to love it.
It’s still required by most of the academic writing style guides globally, and I can’t ignore its usefulness for the long, complicated sentences used prolifically in academia.
But when I began creating media releases on a daily basis (in my other life as a PR copywriter), journalists receiving said releases were equally rabid about omitting the Oxford Comma from anything that crossed their desktop.
(As I write this, I’m imagining an amusing version of astronauts vs. cavemen. In a fight to the death, armed only with Oxford Commas, who’d be more likely to win – academics or journalists?)
My two cents.
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 positively received (or at least resolutely ignored).
For everything else I write – releases, media articles, business copy – I omit it.
Why? Because it’s my job to make sure my client’s words are getting through to the right people, for the right reasons.
And I figure it’s hard enough making sure your communications are reaching their target audience in this crazy world of information overload without worrying about whether a reader’s strong emotions about a little squiggle might eclipse your message.
“As a copywriter, writing for your audience is paramount. If you want to write to please yourself, do it in your own time – and use the Oxford comma religiously when you do.”