My Parents, Shakespeare and Beyonce: Why Serial Commas Matter to Brand

Posted by Natalie Hornyak

The people I admire most in life are my parents, Shakespeare and Beyonce.

Am I somehow the offspring of the long-deceased Bard and the very-much-alive, but very-much-not-old-enough-to-be-my-mom Beyonce? Well, that depends on one powerful little punctuation mark: the serial comma.


The Ten Million Dollar Comma

Also known as the Oxford Comma or the Harvard Comma (yes, even punctuation suffers from brand fragmentation), the serial comma is probably the quickest way to raise the collective blood pressure in a room full of copywriters. It’s the final comma in a list of more than two things, preceding the “and” or “or.” I was taught in elementary school that serial commas were absolutely, 100% mandatory, points off my paper if I forgot to use it. However, that dogmatic approach isn’t observed in the real world — in particular, by the Associated Press Stylebook, which explicitly leaves out the serial comma, and apparently also by the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual.

I know this because of a recent legal showdown in Maine, one which could cost a dairy company $10 million in losses — and could have been prevented if drafters of a certain labor law had, against the recommendations of the legislative drafting manual, used a serial comma in a list of overtime exclusions.

If the serial comma only makes things easier to understand — and could potentially have saved one dairy company millions — why is it so divisive? Why doesn’t the AP Stylebook, the most visible bastion of serial comma exclusion, change its tune? In the spirit of promoting a diverse marketplace of ideas, let’s take a look at the argument against using the serial comma.


Why Your Brand SHOULDN’T Adopt the Oxford Comma

One of the biggest reasons AP doesn’t use serial commas is space. Newspaper design is all about maximizing space economy to fit more content on less paper, using less ink. While that may seem like an archaic argument in the digital age, space is still a premium in many contexts — Twitter, I’m looking at you. If leaving out one comma (and replacing “and” with “&”) means you can add an attention-grabbing image, a link to your website, a popular hashtag, and an @ to someone who’ll then promote your content, then the cost of a comma outweighs the benefits.

Heck, maybe you can even fit an emoji for us millennials — I’m told we’re crazy about those ;-).

As a copywriter, I’m always conscious of character counts. There’s best practice for everything: email subject lines shouldn’t go beyond 65, meta descriptions should be around 150, etc. Sometimes, leaving out a serial comma gets you right where you need to be.

There’s also the argument that you can always just rewrite the sentence to make it clearer. The people I admire most are Beyonce, Shakespeare and my parents. No misunderstandings there — but you know what? I don’t like workarounds. I don’t want some serial comma hater telling me how to order my lists, disrupting the hierarchy and rhythm I had in my head. And that, my friends, is...


Why Your Brand SHOULD Use the Serial Comma

What’s the most important rule of writing? Communicate your message clearly. In fact, I think it’s really the only rule that matters.

Don’t use vague language. Avoid using passive voice. Do what it takes to make your audience understand — yes, even if that means throwing an emoji or two to the millennials. And use the serial comma, because it makes your writing clearer. I mean, I could belabor the point, but that’s really all I have to say about that.


Whatever You Do, Be Consistent

As a copywriter, I have to be fluent in many brand voices, and that means leaving out the serial comma if that’s the brand’s official stance (or if I have to follow the AP Stylebook for a particular deliverable). Yes, many brands have an official serial comma stance, and in my opinion, every brand should. Whether or not you want to use it, throw down the gauntlet and commit. Because inconsistency looks sloppy, and if there’s one thing you want to avoid as a brand, it’s sloppiness. To the savvy reader, a document that can’t decide whether it’s for or against serial commas looks just as bad as a woman Photoshopped to have two right feet.

So where do you stand on the serial comma? Tweet us @Garfield to let us know!