Serial Commas in Marketing Communications Provide Clarity, Without Contortions

In today’s post, the serial comma—also known as the Oxford comma. For those of us who may become rather focused on such things, the debate about “serial comma, yes or no?” can be serious business.

Commas are wonderful tools. They convey changes of direction, clarify sentences, indicate pauses, and flag upcoming dialogue. In marketing communications, where space is often at a premium, they can be especially useful. When you’re writing a list of things, for example, commas can replace all but the final instance of the word “and” or “or” in a series of like items, such as a product features or functions.

Some purists would say, “The serial comma is a highly functional piece of punctuation that lets you put like with like, while increasing clarity so you won’t have to make verbal contortions to avoid perfectly logical lists!” But other purists would counter, “If you feel you need a pesky excess comma to reduce ambiguity, why not just rewrite the sentence?”

Now which of these purists is right? Well, for us, it depends on which purist is a client.

When a client gives the Content Bureau their style guide, or tells us which style manual to follow—whether it’s The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, or something else—we will naturally follow that guide’s rules, including its position on serial commas.

In fact, here at the Content Bureau we will cheerfully write and edit any white papers, case studies, blog posts, and brochures to include or exclude serial commas as desired. (That is … until the day a client announces, “Surprise! Our stance on serial commas has completely changed!” And this does happen.)

My confession: I like serial commas. When a client does not indicate a preference, or when friends—whether writing their first column or considering an initial style guide for their startups—have asked me for editing advice, I have come out in favor of the serial comma.

Why? Because, when used properly, a serial comma helps reduce ambiguity. Here’s the example I’ve used many times over the years to explain my point:

Imagine the transcript of a Grammy Awards speech, or someone writing a dedication in their book. If it read, “I’d like to thank my parents, God and Aretha Franklin,” the meaning could come across as quite different (due to that comma possibly reading as a replacement for a colon) from the intended meaning of—with serial comma, clearly showing that it’s a series—“I’d like to thank my parents, God, and Aretha Franklin.”

Yet despite my personal preference for serial commas, there are times and places where I would recommend against them. Namely, even if a company’s house style is to use serial commas, when it comes to corporate tweets and email campaign subject lines where space is limited and every character counts, I would join the chorus of those who say, “Take out that excess comma!”

If you aren’t constrained by rules of style but are unsure whether to use the serial comma, you can always—even at the risk of verbal contortions—solve the issue by making your words so concise yet clear that there is no room for ambiguity, misinterpretation, or doubt.

(And with that final serial comma, I, for now, sign out.)

By Nina Davis