The Oxford Comma & Web Content: How, When, Where?

The Oxford Comma & Its Place In Your Web Content

by | Jan 4, 2017 | Copywriting

Who cares about an Oxford comma?
Good question. You should, if you are in search of being a well-read online writer.
While the Oxford comma may seem like a useless little piece of punctuation, this unique little comma has a major effect on the clarity of a sentence, and can either improve your online content or drive it into the ground depending on how you use it.
How much does it matter to the content writer, and the readability of online content? Let’s dive in and talk about the Oxford comma in relation to online writing.
comma in web content

What is the Oxford Comma, & Why is it Such a Big Deal?

Oxford Dictionaries defines the Oxford comma as an optional comma that precedes the word and, and appears at the end of a list.
It garners it’s name from being traditionally used by readers, editors and printers at Oxford University Press. It also goes by the nickname “serial comma.”
This still from the Oxford Dictionaries “What is the Oxford Comma” YouTube video does an eloquent job at portraying the problem that could occur, should you omit the Oxford comma. (See the highlighted blue circle showing where the Oxford comma would go.)
screenshot youtube oxford comma
Without the comma, the characters in the still – President Obama and the Queen of England – become acrobats at the party.
With the Oxford comma, the characters go back to being who they are, intact, all right in the world.
(I like to say the Oxford comma saves lives, because there’s also this fun old quip: “Eat, Grandma!” vs. “Eat Grandma!” Telling Grandma to eat takes quite a turn, without the Oxford comma.)
According to a 2014 poll that asked Americans in general about their feelings regarding the Oxford comma:

  • 57% reported that they were for using it
  • 43% would rather avoid it

This is a pretty even split, and it provides some insight into why so few people can agree on the Oxford Comma’s place in online writing.
Even though there are a few different schools of thought about how to use the Oxford comma, and where it’s appropriate, anyone familiar with professional writing (either on paper or online) knows that inconsistency looks improper. As such, it’s smart to develop a standard for how you’ll use the Oxford Comma in your online writing.
In addition to being a good practice, learning to use the Oxford comma correctly can have a significant impact on the clarity of your writing.
After all, the Oxford comma has the potential to change the meaning of a sentence completely – as we saw in the earlier image.
Consider two more examples:

  • “Angie went into the lake with her sister, a doctor and a hot-air-balloon enthusiast.”
  • “Angie went into the lake with her sister, a doctor, and a hot-air-balloon enthusiast.”

One simple comma can mean the difference between a three-person lake party with a doctor and a hot air balloon enthusiast, and a quality summer outing between sisters.
So, learning to use the Oxford comma correctly is essential to ensure that your writing is saying what you want it to say, rather than running away with your purpose.

But, Do You HAVE to Use It?

Is the Oxford comma strictly required in writing?
The answer, although I’ll probably debate you on it (;-)), is not at all!
As a copywriter, you’ll find that some clients prefer it and that some could do without. Feel free to cater your style to the preferences and style guides of your clients. Certain brands may have uniform grammar rules that they appreciate and go by, and you want to stick within their voice and style. That’s fine.
Beyond personal preference, there’s also a geographical norm to the Oxford comma. Once you start using it, you’ll find that it’s a pretty standard practice in the US, but far less common throughout the UK. 

How to Use the Oxford Comma: 4 Tips to Remember

While the Oxford comma is necessary, it can be confusing. Here’s a list of key ways to use it.

1. Always use the comma in long, complex lists.

Example: “Alison went to the store and got caviar, cheese, crackers, soy sauce, Sprite, cookies, bread, and toenail clippers.” The Oxford comma in this sentence appears right before the last “and” and helps to simplify the pattern of the phrase.
While it’s fine to omit the Oxford comma in a short list (“Alison went to the store and got cheese and crackers”) it helps to streamline longer lists and is essential in any online content that lists a variety of products, goods, or services, for example.

2. Use the serial comma in any sentence that needs additional clarification or could be confusing without it.

In online content, using the Oxford comma is recommended in any piece that will be confusing without it. Because the Oxford comma helps to break up topics and keep the message clear for readers, it’s an essential way to keep mix-ups to a minimum and help your readers digest the essential meanings of your content.
Here’s an example: “I had toast, eggs and cheese.”
Without the Oxford comma, it sounds like you’re telling your friends, Eggs and Cheese, that you had toast for breakfast. “Great,” they think, and your readers are confused. To make it easier on everyone, insert the Oxford comma:
“I had toast, eggs, and cheese.”
For an example of how the Oxford comma (or lack of it) can create confusion, check out this Mental Floss infographic on the topic:

mental floss infographic


3. In online writing, use the comma before coordinating conjunctions that link independent clauses.

“I went running, and saw a platypus.”
“I sat at a coffee shop, and met the president.” Etc.
The reason for this is simple, if you took the implicit “I” from the second sentence, it wouldn’t have a subject, which destroys its meaning and makes it grammatically incorrect. With this in mind, insert a serial comma to help it make sense.

4. Use the Oxford comma before the final item in any list of three or more

This applies to all types of online writing: if you have a list of three or more, insert the Oxford comma before the final item. This helps avoid confusion and streamline your writing. It also helps keep your material consistent, and saves you from looking like an amateur to your audiences.

5. …Except when the concluding element requires a conjunction

The only exception to the above rule is when the last item in a series contains a conjunction. Example: “I had eggs, cheese, coffee and cream for breakfast.” If you put a comma before “and cream,” it would indicate that you had cream all on its own, rather than in your coffee which (We hope) isn’t true!

In Defense of the Oxford Comma

This lovely bit of punctuation is a real grammar life-saver. Lose it at your peril: use it to win! 😉
Knowing just how to use it can help simplify its place and purpose in your online writing. This simple little piece of punctuation is critical for helping avoid confusion and streamline your online writing.
Have anything to add or share about how you use the Oxford comma in your content? Tell me in the comments!

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