The other day, a few of us copywriters were huddled around one of our office tables discussing what might be the most debated topic in writing: the Oxford Comma.
The Oxford (or Serial) Comma, for those of you who don’t know, is the comma that goes before the "and" or "or" in a list grouping 3 or more.
I’m really not sure why this grammar subject causes such a stir amongst writerly communities, because for me the answer is obvious: the Oxford Comma is ALWAYS necessary.
To better understand what I'm saying, take a look at the examples to the right.
See the second sentence? That's the sentence MISSING the Oxford Comma.
It also doesn't make very much sense.
I know my opinion alone isn’t going to float this boat, but hear me out: aurally, the Oxford Comma just makes sense.
If You Can Speak It, You Can Write It
When people come to me for writing help, my first piece of advice is always “if you can speak it, you can write it.”
Think about it: writing is no more than a way to organize and express our thoughts. We do this on the daily; If we’re hungry, we say so. If we’re telling our best friends about some crazy work experience, we don’t stop, make a brainstorm, and think of the words to use, do we?
Instead, speaking is organic. It’s a free-flowing, verbal representation of our thoughts, and I think that writing should come from the same place.
Be sure your not making more than grammar mistakes in your blogs with the Rules to Blog By Checklist
Sure, writing should be toned and free of grammar errors, but the most important thing about writing is that it should read naturally. Your words should mimic your own voice. Never force yourself to write in a tone you wouldn’t be comfortable speaking in. There’s musicality in writing, and as soon as you understand that, you’ll be on your way to writing from a much stronger (and more fun) standpoint.
Understanding Your Voice is Understanding Your Tools
Punctuation is even more troubling for those who aren’t particularly “writing-inclined.”
I’m not sure why, but a lot of people get in their heads that punctuation is just something to be memorized. It seems like a by-product of the “memorize for the test, forget it all after” mentality that we adopt in school. But if you really take the time to understand the “musicality” of your writing, you’ll be shocked at how much easier using punctuation becomes.
Let’s think about a few of the most popular punctuation marks we use in writing and translate them into everyday speech:
- The Period:
Syntactically speaking, the period is the end of a sentence. The same applies to everyday speech. It’s the end of a direct thought. If you’re telling a story, a period would be the place where you move from one direct thought to the next.
- The Quotation Mark:
In writing, a set of quotation marks signifies exact words or a chunk of text taken from another source. In speech, this would probably be where you lower or raise your voice to mimic someone else’s. It’s funny to think about, but true.
- The Dash:
In writing, a dash is a brief pause leading from one like thought to another (usually placed for emphasis). It’s different from the comma because it’s a longer, and it allows you to transition without having to include any physical transition words. In speech, the dash is a longer pause of breath.
- The Comma:
In writing, the comma is used to order clauses, lists, and other series of ideas. In speech, the comma acts as a small pause—or what I like to call the “breath pause.” This little pause allows for ideas (even if longer than a few words) to be presented as clearly as possible, in a way that mimics the natural rhythm of speech.
This brings me back to case of the Oxford Comma.
A comma signifies, and will ALWAYS signify, a pause in speech. Even if you read a phrase without commas, you’ll notice that the natural inclination is to pause where there should be a comma. Without the pause, it just makes no sense.
For this reason, I just can’t agree with those who don’t use the Oxford Comma. Writing is translating ideas into the language of everyday speech. Punctuation marks assist us in that translation. So please, please USE them. Or else you'll end up like the guy who published the book mentioned above.
There's a difference between Strong and Best
Ultimately, it's our responsibility as writers to connect with our audiences and lead them through our words. Strong writers have the ability to lay ideas out clearly and efficiently, but the best writers are the ones who can do so while still expressing their own voice.
One very big part of creating your own voice is knowing how to use punctuation to your advantage.
Next time you're sitting down to write, don't fret. Just sound it out. Arrange your words in a way that sounds most natural to you.
The best things in life are the things that allow you to be yourself. There's no reason that writing should be any different.
And if you're a blogger, or responsible for your company's blog, be sure to run your them through the ultimate Rules to Blog By checklist.