Randy’s Handy Copywriting Tips: Solving A Comma Problem

| By Randy Jones

If you want to start a rowdy debate among writers, proofreaders or a bunch of English professors, bring up the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma is the comma that appears after the last item in a list, such as:

Harvey brought hot dogs, buns, chips, dip, and drinks to the party.

The comma after “dip” is the Oxford comma, and there are those who say it often isn’t necessary, as in:

Harvey brought hot dogs, buns, chips, dip and drinks to the party.

Some experts, however, say the Oxford comma should always be used – hence the debate. For instance, the Chicago Manual of Style and the University of Oxford Style Guide (of course) say that using the Oxford comma is the rule. The AP Style Guide, however, is less adamant. They say the Oxford comma should be used when necessary, but can be left out of a simple series like the example above.

Overall, I tend to agree with the AP Style Guide usage in writing advertising copy or copy for a website. I write with the readers in mind, always asking myself how I want the copy to sound in their head as they read along. A comma is a pause, and if a pause isn’t needed then I try to avoid it. Of course, sometimes a pause is needed, as when the list is more complex, such as:

Johnson’s Bicycle Repair offers complete bicycle maintenance, tire repair and replacement, chain replacement and reattachment, and a full line of bike parts
for the do-it-yourselfer.

In this case the list contains combinations, not just individual items, and the last item is a long phrase. I want the reader to pause after “reattachment,” so I use an Oxford comma. The problem occurs when the copy for the ad or the website contains both types of lists, some simple and others complex. You always want to be consistent in your copy, so if an Oxford comma is used for some lists, it should be used for all lists.

However, there is a handy way to avoid the Oxford comma that would be unusual or even improper in a news story or white paper or other type of writing but is commonly accepted in advertising and marketing copy – using bullets. On a website or in an ad, for instance, I would probably present the information above in this way:

Johnson’s Bicycle Repair offers:

  • Complete bicycle maintenance
  • Tire repair and replacement
  • Chain replacement and reattachment
  • A full line of bike parts for the do-it-yourselfer

Not only does this eliminate the need for the Oxford comma, it makes it easier for the reader to quickly scan the list.

So here’s my copywriting tip for dealing with the use of the Oxford comma: If the list is short, don’t use it. If the list is long, use bullets instead. In both cases, it makes the copy easier to read, and that should always be your goal.

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