Jilly: The Case for the Oxford Comma

Do you care about the Oxford comma?

A few days ago my husband and I found ourselves in a discussion about punctuation with the lawyer who prepared our wills. She explained the need for clarity in legal drafting, and highlighted the danger that a misplaced punctuation mark could completely change the effect of a clause. I don’t know what made me think of it, but in a moment of word-geekery I checked the draft will in front of me and noticed that the list of our potential executors (Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane) was written without a comma after the penultimate name.

I asked, and was told that this is the approved punctuation for a list of items or names: apparently the legal manual of style in England does not favor the Oxford comma. The discovery surprised me. If the lack of a serial comma can make nonsense of a simple sentence like “Susan organized a party and invited her parents, the Queen of England and Richard Branson,” (clearly Her Majesty and Sir Richard are not Susan’s parents), then surely, I thought, it would have the potential to cause confusion in some contracts.

I was curious, so when I got home, I spent some quality time on the interwebs and was tickled to find that the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently issued a ruling that hinged on this very point, regarding overtime pay for drivers at Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine.

State law requires workers in Maine to be paid time and a half for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week, but with an exception as follows:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  • Agricultural produce;
  • Meat and fish products; and
  • Perishable foods.

The drivers argued that the pay exception applied to the packing for shipment or distribution, not the distribution itself. The court ruled that the law was not clear, which led to an overtime settlement of around $5 million for the drivers.

I particularly enjoyed the comment by the drivers’ lawyer, David G Webbert, who agreed that an additional comma after “shipment” would have made the meaning clear. Quoted in this New York Times article, he said, “That comma would have sunk our ship.”

I don’t know about you, but I love the idea that even in our informal, chat-friendly world, precise punctuation has a value beyond providing material for internet memes and editorial style spats.

3 thoughts on “Jilly: The Case for the Oxford Comma

  1. I remember that court case! I was thrilled about it, both because the comma won, and the drivers won. 🙂

    I think the Oxford comma is crucial, and there’s no reason whatsoever, no matter what the lawyers say, not to use it. It was omitted for a good reason many years ago, when type was set on linotype machines, and commas took up valuable real estate in a column of type. (If you’ve seen the film “The Post,” you’ve seen the linotypers at work and you know what I mean.) But now linotypes are a thing of the past, and people who “pour” type can squish letters and spaces electronically to make them fit into lines. The idea that a single comma could force a premature line break is nonsense now. So I say, strike a note for clarity! Bring on that Oxford comma.

  2. I’m an ardent fan of the Oxford comma. If you’ve ever read “Eat, Shoots, and Leaves” you’d know why. Many a comma has either rendered something nonsensical or completely absurd (as in the case of the title of the book, the original author of that wacky headline is referring to pandas, who eat shoots and leaves). I also recall the court case about the truck drivers and tried to use it to prove a point to my husband, who thinks the Oxford comma is overused. I told him if he was the one who had to pay out HIS employees because of a technicality like that, he’d use it more often, too.

    In any case, I’m with Kay. Bring on that Oxford comma!

  3. (-: Very interesting to hear this news about the Oxford Comma. I was taught Associated Press style in college, which also eschews the Oxford comma. Not using it saves a little bit of space, sure.

    But the biggest deal is that if your writing can be so affected by a tiny little dot, there’s something wrong with the writing. Anything could add an extra “Oxford comma” — a flyspeck, a stray bit of dark chocolate or even an accidental pen mark.

    Oxford fans love the stripper example, but never seem to find the opposite arguments on the internet. For example, Susan invited her mother, the Queen of England, and Richard Branson. Now you can see that Susan might be a bastard child of the Queen of England, if we read it the wrong way.

    I’ll do whatever my editor wants, but I think insistence on the Oxford comma is a little silly. I will definitely agree that consistency is the most important point.

    The thing is, most publishing houses use a style that uses the Oxford comma. Which means that every damn time I make a list, I’m forced to spend a millisecond debating whether or not I want to use the Oxford comma, or be an Oxford rebel.

    It’s probably a good thing, though. Because it gives me a moment to think about my list. If it’s really unclear either way, I need a rewrite.

    Business Insider has a good article about the controversy, and about the importance of rephrasing ambiguous series. http://www.businessinsider.com/do-you-need-the-oxford-comma-2013-9

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