When I was taught English grammar back in high school, I was taught a list of words or phrases should be separated by commas—except for the last two in the list. For example, the “correct” way to write the following sentence is as follows:

When you go to the store to buy shirts, you should select blue, yellow, red and orange.

Logically, I’ve always been confused by this construction. In my simple mind, this sentence constructed this way tells me I should buy three shirts, one blue, another yellow, and a third that is red and orange. I suspect, however, the writer  wanted us to buy four shirts; one blue, one yellow, one red, and one orange. So why doesn’t he just say that?

My solution is to add one more comma. Despite the fact that my high school English teacher is rolling over in her grave, I am confident this simple modification will help us be clearer in our writing, and especially in our proposal writing.

When you go to the store to buy shirts, you should select blue, yellow, red, and orange.

It’s really quite amazing the difference one comma can make–if you have the courage to break with tradition and take a stand, that is. Go on. Be brave. You can do it!

OK, maybe I’m overselling this. This extra comma is often referred to as the “Oxford comma” because it’s included in the Oxford style guide. So you aren’t really going it alone if you embrace the extra comma–the folks at Oxford have your back.  Still, I was including the extra comma before I knew about the Oxford comma, so I still feel like a rebel.

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David Seibert is a professional salesperson, proposal writer, and proposal consultant. He is also the founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses and to state and local governments. You can contact him at dseibert@persuasionselling.com.

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