Disclaimer: Views stated in this post are reflective of the author and not indicative of McDougall Communications.
Look through my desk and you will find two guidebooks that I refer to frequently. The first is the 2015 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook—a dense, all-encompassing guide to writing, designed by and for journalists. The second is a slender, yet vital, resource: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Ask any PR professional about these books and chances are they have a copy of one or both on hand. And for good reason, too.
Whether I’m writing a press release or a blog post, I use these books not as crutches, but as necessary tools to make me a better writer. Both are filled with seemingly endless knowledge, helpful rules and tips to strengthen our prose and storytelling abilities. But the rules of each book don’t always align, most glaringly when it comes to one of the most controversial topics in the English language: The Oxford comma.
For those of you who skipped your punctuation lessons, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is the comma used before the conjunction in a series of three or more terms. For example:
The American flag is red, white, and blue.
I’m influenced by my parents, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Bowie.
“What’s the big deal? It’s only a comma,” say the unbelievers. That in itself is the essence of the anti-Oxford comma movement—that it’s an unnecessary, grammatical technicality introduced by literary elitists looking to distance themselves from the peasantry. The AP Stylebook supports its removal, instructing writers to “Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.”
So, by removing the punctuation, the examples I shared earlier look like this:
The American flag is red, white and blue.
I’m influenced by my parents, Kurt Vonnegut and David Bowie.
The American flag is now red and baby blue, and my parents are Vonnegut and Bowie. As cool as it would be to have these icons as parents, it’s not true, and it makes the sentence misleading. The subtle change in grammar makes all the difference.
And that’s one of the reasons why defenders of the Oxford comma such as myself turn to The Elements of Style for guidance on the issue. Clarity is generally the main reason for its usage, but rhythm plays an equally important role. When describing the American flag, it sounds much better having a steady cadence when listing off the colors. “The flag is red, white, and blue” gives a necessary inflection after each color is named, as opposed to when the Oxford comma is omitted. It may only be aesthetics, but if beauty is removed from the writing, then why bother writing at all?
Not everyone here at McDougall Communications is as passionate about the Oxford comma as I am, but we all agree that its clarity justifies its existence. And at the end of the day, different clients will have different brand standards that dictate whether it should be used or not. We will always choose the best fit for our clients and refrain from pushing our personal preferences upon them.
Which is probably for the best, since I prefer to use the Oxford comma as opposed to the medieval barbarism that thrives in its absence.
By Nick Guadagnino