Grammar Girl AP style tips on the Oxford comma, headlines and more

Mignon Fogarty settles the serial comma debate once and for all.  


If you love or loathe the sometimes-tedious task of going over your writing with a fine-tooth comb to ensure proper grammar, consider yourself in good company. We are an empathetic group of linguaphiles over here with an expert in tow to help navigate AP style updates and maneuver through the changes.  

Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl of the Quick and Dirty Tips Podcast Network, shared her expertise during a recent Ragan webinar with the nitty-gritty of AP style, including the serial comma, headline style, pronouns and more. 


Serial comma  

Sure, some of the more hotly contested debates of where you stand with hot dog condiment preferences (ketchup all the way) are akin to writers’ points of contention that often circle back to whether or not to use the good old serial comma, also called the Oxford comma.  

AP style does not use the serial comma in simple lists like “red, white and blue.” However, it’s more of a style preference than a hard-fast rule, Fogarty says, though many treat it like a Golden Rule.  

There are some reasons to use the serial comma, however — mostly when it adds additional clarity. 

Do use a serial comma when series elements contain conjunctions.   

For example, AP Style would word the following sentence this way: “I like peanut butter and jelly, ham and eggs, and macaroni and cheese.”   

“You would use a comma before the ‘and’ that comes in the last element,” Fogarty said. “You do this even if one of those items contains an ‘and.’”  


Headlines and numbers  

Engaging headlines should be in sentence case and present tense.  

When writing headlines, per AP style, capitalize only the first letter of the first word (plus proper nouns) as you would in a standard sentence, minus the period, Fogarty said. Question marks are OK.  

When using a colon, the first word after a colon in a headline is capitalized. Side note, in body copy, you only capitalize after the colon if it’s a proper noun or a complete sentence -– otherwise, no capitalization.  

Headlines always use Arabic numerals even if the number is the first word (except zero).  

Examples of using numbers in headlines: are “7 ways to top a potato” and “Smith gets 3 years in prison.” 

This is in contrast to the general rule for body copy, Fogarty said, which is to write out Arabic numerals less than 10 and use Arabic numerals for the rest.  

When writing big numbers in headlines, less is often more as “millions” and “billions” can be shortened to $5M or $5.5B with a capital “M” and “B” and no spaces in between.  



Fogarty describes personal pronoun use as an “active area of language change,” which continue to be updated throughout AP Style as attitudes toward gender change.  

For example, it used to be correct to write, “zookeepers must protect his animals,” defaulting to the male pronoun as default. However, now AP style says it’s better to rewrite as, “zookeepers must protect their animals,” using the gender-neutral singular “their,” or “a zookeeper must protect the animals” removing the need for a pronoun altogether. 

For people who don’t identify as male or female, AP allows the singular “they” but does not use newer pronouns like “xe” or “ze,” according to Fogarty’s presentation.  

Fogarty recommends that communicators explain that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun while being clear that the terminology does not imply it’s more than one person. 

 Sherri Kolade is a writer at Ragan Communications. When she is not with her family, she enjoys watching Alfred Hitchcock-style films, reading and building an authentically curated life that includes more than occasionally finding something deliciously fried. Follow her on LinkedIn. Have a great PR story idea? Email her at


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