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Comma Commentary: Oxford or Not?

Jon Feld,

When I think about what we do at Rebellion Group — as an agency poised on the bleeding edge of AI and other breakthrough technology that serve our clients — I am reminded that we are “Catalysts of Change.”

Except when we’re not, like now.

Today, I’m addressing an issue that may seem minor, but not to me. I’m speaking, of course, about the often misunderstood Oxford, or serial, comma.

Understand that I am in no way any sort of grammar maven. I dangle participles like you wouldn’t believe. That said, I do have an autographed copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There’s just something alluring about the brave little Oxford comma.

A Hotly Contested Debate

About two years ago, I heard a grammar expert on NPR discussing the fact that the serial comma was no longer necessary. But the debate continues to rage. The Chicago Manual of Style says it is; AP Stylebook says it’s not…mostly.

Here’s how AP Stylebook’s lead editor, Paula Froke, recently hedged on the subject: “The Stylebook doesn’t ban the use of a serial comma. Whether you put it in at all times is a different debate.” A truly definitive maybe from the experts.

In fact, no less an august publication than Psychology Today claims that it isn’t needed (listen, I trust you to out my multiple neuroses, but stay in your lane).

One Grammarly editor put the whole thing in context thusly: “Oxford commas are like the UGG boots of the punctuation world. People either love them or hate them or don’t know what they are.”

Given that the world around me seemed to be shifting, I wrote an internal message to our creative team about the Oxford comma no longer being a hill on which I was willing to die.

Then James, our new Chief Creative Officer, deemed the serial comma once again necessary. I felt order had been restored to my world. So, why do I care so much?

The History of the Oxford Comma

Really, who gives a rat’s ass?

O.K., just for the sake of this blog, the Oxford comma has been attributed to Horace Hart, printer and controller of the Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915. You have to respect potentially superfluous punctuation that’s lasted over 100 years.

The Benefits

If my argument falls apart anywhere, it’s here. The advantages of the Oxford comma are, sadly, relatively few.

First, it signals a list. But if you can’t see that, stop reading anything.

Second, it gives every item in the list equal weight. Consider, “I have two dogs, a lemur, a tapir, and an ocelot.” vs. “I have two dogs, a lemur, a tapir and an ocelot.” In the latter, it feels like the tapir and the ocelot are a couple, if an odd one. Think of the offspring. They’d look like aardvarks in animal print. But I digress.

Finally, it helps avoid confusion. Consider the sentence: “I walked into a room filled with insane clowns, you, and your cousins.” It’s about three people or groups in the room. Pull that second comma in that sentence, and it shifts the meaning radically: “I walked into a room filled with insane clowns, you and your cousins.” You and your cousins are now the insane clowns.

Why It Matters

If you work with us now, you know that the Rebellion Group creative team urges the placement of the Oxford comma in your style guide whenever we have a say (it’s also been known to sneak in on its own — it’s a passive-aggressive thing).

But does it matter? I can’t say for sure that no one has ever died due to a missing comma creating an appositive phrase that changed the meaning of a sentence like the one above. But, in the end, it’s about standards; about standing up for what you believe in.

The Oxford comma may seem insignificant in the overall fabric of language, but, to me, it’s a standard-bearer — the thing that keeps barbarian miscommunications outside the gates.

In the end, here’s where my stance really holds water. As an agency, we are at our very heart data-driven. And what the data tells us is that the Oxford comma improves readability. If clear messaging is our golden ticket to reaching consumers with our content, the Oxford comma is our messaging’s lever, helping with the heavy lifting of clarity.

Strict rules or not, it’s about what best serves our brands’ target audiences, and that’s what we’ll always lean into.

Oxford comma, 1; haters, 0.

Tell us what you think anywhere we share this blog out. But stick to your opinion on the Oxford comma and leave my grammar out of it. I’ve already admitted to being syntax-challenged.