Oxford Comma

If you’re familiar with my writing, you probably are well aware that I am a fan of the Oxford or serial comma. This can be a surprisingly contentious debate among writers. For anybody who doesn’t know, the Oxford comma precedes the “and” in a list of three or more items, like so.

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

The Oxford comma shows up there after “science fiction.” Without it, the sentence would be written like this:

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

Opponents of the Oxford comma find it redundant because as they see it, the “and” already provides the necessary division between items. However, depending upon the sentence, it can be ambiguous with respect to the last two items on this list being part of a whole. Here’s another example that I found online:

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective.”

versus

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective.”

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence is ambiguous. Is Amanda’s ex-boyfriend the herbalist and pet detective? Or, are there four people in the camper? This recent news article got me thinking about this today. In a court ruling from the state of Maine, the absence of a serial comma, intentional or otherwise, turned out to be crucial to the case.

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma for its endorsement by the Oxford University Press style rulebook, is a comma used just before the coordinating conjunction (“and,” or “or,” for example) when three or more terms are listed. You’ll see it in the first sentence of this story—it’s the comma after “milk”—but you won’t find it in the Maine overtime rule at issue in the Oakhurst Dairy case. According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

There, in the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or,” the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued. Is packing (for shipment or distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two different activities, and both exempt?

If lawmakers had used a serial comma, it would have been clear that distribution was an overtime-exempt activity on its own. But without the comma, wrote US appeals judge David J. Barron, the law is ambiguous as to whether distribution is a separate activity, or whether the whole last clause—”packing for shipment or distribution”—is one activity, meaning only the people who pack the dairy products are exempt. The drivers do distribute, but do not pack, the perishable food.

Seeing as I don’t believe in depriving any hourly worker of overtime pay, this is a happy outcome as far as I’m concerned. But it also shows why the Oxford comma is necessary for clear communication. If it were in standard use, its absence would be meaningful and the statute would unambiguously read (packing) (for shipment or distribution) as opposed to (packing for shipment) (or distribution).

Some opponents argue that the use of the Oxford comma is somehow more ambiguous, but I just don’t see that. The point is not that you have to use it all the time regardless of context, but rather when the last two of your three or more items are distinct. You omit it when they are not. That’s how I use it when I write, and in my opinion everyone should do it that way.

Of course, there’s a lot of disagreement out there on that point, and it has somehow turned into the writing version of the “how to hang the toilet paper” argument that so many non-writers seem to get worked up about. This case shows that it is less trivial than you might think at first, and its ramifications can lead to real-world consequences.

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