February 15, 2018 (Updated: May 4, 2023)
Content writers don’t agree on everything, but we agree on one thing: there’s a big debate over whether we should use the Oxford comma, or serial comma, in our pieces. Ask five different writers their thoughts on the subject. Not just if they use it, but why. You’re likely to get five different answers. At CopyPress, we’re fans of this punctuation mark. Why should you care? Because the more you know about the writing process, no matter your role in marketing, the better your content can be. Here are five reasons using the Oxford comma elevates B2B content for any audience:
Image via Baron News
This is the biggest and best argument for using the Oxford comma in any writing, but especially copywriting. As a marketer, you have a job to do, and that is to convince your audience that they need your business, products, or services. If you confuse them, it doesn’t help your case. Look at the sentence in the image above: “the bus was full of crazy people, you, and your friends.” It tells you about three people or groups of people on the bus. First are the crazy people, second is you, and third are your friends.
What happens if we remove the second comma from that sentence? You get one with an entirely different meaning: “the bus was full of crazy people, you and your friends.” Not to take you back to sixth grade English class, but now you don’t have a list of three items. Instead, you have an appositive phrase, which redefines a noun, making you and your friends the crazy people on the bus.
If it feels like you’re creating and encountering more content now than ever before, chances are that’s true. Content is everywhere in written, visual, and interactive forms. With so many pieces available all the time, your target audience likely doesn’t read everything they encounter. Instead, they probably scan or preview pieces, judging them by qualities like headline interest and piece length to decide if reading or watching the entire thing is worth their time. That’s why making your content as scannable as possible helps you snag more thorough readers. The Oxford comma can help.
Similar to bulleted and ordered lists and other layout constructions, the Oxford comma helps readers and scanners pick out certain important areas of text. When readers and scanners see multiple commas in a row, their brains realize they’re seeing a list of items, or an order sequence. That may or may not influence if they actually stop to read your content. But, by allowing them to pick up on that information just by scanning your piece, you increase the chance that they feel like they know what they’re agreeing to read before they jump into an article or post.
The English language is confusing, sometimes even for native speakers. That’s why in marketing, and any type of writing, clarity is so important. But in marketing, when you’re convincing people to do something or buy something, you have to be more than just clear. What we mean is you don’t just want people to think they understand what you’re saying and move on. You want them to connect with your writing and then complete an action. This goes beyond just avoiding ambiguity.
In content writing, you may introduce multiple thoughts, feelings, and actions in one sentence. For example, you may write a line in a blog that says: “take a deep breath, consider your favorite color, hit the purchase button, and buy the office furniture set your team’s been waiting for.”
With the Oxford comma in this sentence, there’s a clear separation of each step, and the reader knows exactly what you want them to do. If possible, you could take this sentence and turn it into an ordered or bulleted list, removing only the word “and.” There’s no mistaking that the last thing they should do is not just click the purchase button, but actually go through the following process to buy the office furniture. Is that nitpicky? Maybe a little. But remember, clarity brings conversions.
Using the Oxford comma isn’t just about clarity and readability. It’s about putting an equal value on all parts of your list and sentence. Within your business, all your products or services have an equal value from a marketing standpoint. When you write about them, make sure your content reflects that. Let’s use CopyPress, for example. We offer a variety of content writing services, all of which help our clients meet their marketing goals and SEO needs. There are two ways we could list them in a content article, with and without the Oxford comma:
This makes it seem like we only offer four services instead of three, which is unclear. It also makes white paper and product description services seem less important because they’re just stuffed at the end of the sentence like an afterthought. Commas and other punctuation marks signal your brain to stop and pause when reading. Leaving one out makes it look like certain list items don’t matter because you don’t take a proper pause before reading the next one.
Okay, maybe not everyone is using the Oxford comma, but quite a few big names in writing and publishing have directions about using it in their style guides. Some notable organizations that encourage the use of the Oxford comma in their style guides include:
The Associated Press Stylebook, the guide that most news outlets and journalists follow, doesn’t encourage the use of the Oxford Comma. This practice likely comes from AP’s popularity with print journalism, where character count and text length matter more than they do online. But the organization doesn’t ban using this punctuation either. According to the stylebook’s Twitter account, the writer should use their best judgment for clarity when following AP comma guidelines. If you don’t have a style guide yet, you might choose to model yours after one of these popular choices, and most of them would urge you to use the Oxford comma.
Though we like the Oxford comma at CopyPress, when you work with us you don’t have to use it. We create a style guide that’s unique to your industry and client specifications. This living document follows your content campaign from onboarding to publication, and our writers, editors, and QA specialists follow it to the letter, or in this case, the punctuation mark. Ready to get started? Schedule a call with CopyPress to start your next great content partnership. And sign up for our email newsletter to stay up-to-date on the latest trends in content marketing.
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