A (Not So Serious) Debate on the Serial Comma

Apr 14, 2017 | Public Relations

There’s nothing sexy about grammar rules. Style guides may be much beloved by authoritarian word nerds, but few others want to debate the proper use of “fewer” and “less than” over their happy hour drinks.

But the serial comma, or Oxford comma, has become somewhat of an enigma. Named for the Oxford University Press guidelines that require it, it’s the final comma before the conjunction at the end of a list.

With the comma: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.”

Or, sans comma: “I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

When it comes to the Oxford comma, you’re either for it or against it, and it’s a well-marked line between camps (with some pretty ridiculous examples on the pro-comma side).

A recent TED-Ed Original highlights some of the basic arguments on both sides:

At Gavin, we don’t use it. Our audience and clients are smart cookies, and most of the time, the sentence is clear to a perceptive reader. If not, changing the order of the items is often enough to erase confusion – i.e., “I dedicate this book to Ayn Rand, my parents and God.”

We also – like many of the journalists we work with on behalf of our public relations clients – follow the rules of the AP Stylebook, which says no thanks to the Oxford comma as well.

But, we do use it for clients based on the nature of their brand and what they do. We make a point of consistency in those documents, though, so we’re not confusing readers with changing punctuation.

Why do we have style guidelines at all?

They work as a branding tool, giving our clients credibility and helping them stand apart from the competition. That’s part of our approach at Gavin – attention to details in supporting our clients’ goals and driving action.

That way, clients (and staff!) can enjoy their happy-hour drinks celebrating success – no grammar debates needed.