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The Literary Rants: The Oxford Comma

March 20, 2017

It’s called the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or even the Harvard comma. (image via wikimedia)

Punctuation can be boring, especially commas.  If I remember, there were a bunch of comma rules when I was in school (I’m pretty sure the comma rules haven’t changed since then), and they were tough to keep track of.

The comma made the news last week when some truckers in Maine won millions of overtime dollars because of the absence of a comma in a state law. It sounds boring, but a lot of money was involved, so that should automatically make it interesting.

WARNING!!!  BORING LEGAL GRAMMAR ANALYSIS!!

The truckers were demanding four years of overtime back pay, and the employer refused, claiming that Maine state law said that overtime didn’t apply to the drivers’ situation.  The law itself is long and gives me a headache, but this New York Times article (if you trust it) says-

Note the lack of Oxford comma — also known as the serial comma — in the following state law, which says overtime rules do not apply to:

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.

Because there was no Oxford comma, the judge decided that the law was ambiguous enough to give overtime to the truckers, who were involved only with distribution, not “packing for shipments.”  With the Oxford comma, the law would have said:

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.

If that had been the case, the truckers might NOT have been granted overtime pay.

Then again, I’m not sure the comma should have made a difference anyway.

All the verbs in the sentence end with –ing (canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing) , and to me that makes distribution a noun which should be attached to the preposition for, which would give the preposition two objects.  That would make the entire phrase “packing for shipment or distribution.”

If distribution had been meant as a separate activity, it would have been phrased as distributing and that might have made the lawmakers’ intentions clear.

But no matter what, it still would have given me a headache.

END OF BORING LEGAL GRAMMAR ANALYSIS!!

You can stop yawning now. (image via wikimedia)

I don’t blame the judges, the truckers, or the company, or even the state law for this mess.  I blame the comma.

I was taught in school to use the Oxford comma, but it wasn’t called an Oxford comma.  It was called the serial comma, but that was in the late 1970s before there were so many serial killers (we just weren’t quite as aware of serial killers), and maybe some sensitive people don’t want to use the word serial in anything.

My wife does some business writing now, and she is taught NOT to use the Oxford comma.  My daughters’ grammar textbooks (they never open them) both say to use the serial comma.

The problem is the inconsistency.  I know that English is inconsistent.  Every rule has exceptions, but at least most grammarians agree what the rules are, such as “I before E except after C.”  All the grammarians should get together and put the serial comma to a vote.  I don’t even care if it’s a popular vote or an Electoral College vote; just put it to a vote and stick to the results.

If it matters to anybody, it makes more sense to me to use the comma, but I’m not going to argue about it.  I don’t want to get into a punctuation argument over a comma.  I’ve gotten into some really stupid fights before, and I’d feel sheepish later if I got into a yelling match over an Oxford comma.  After the vote, I’d want to change the term back to serial comma too.   You use the commas in a series, not in an Oxford, so it makes more sense to me.

*****

What do you think?  Are you a fan of the serial comma?  Were you taught to use or not use the Oxford comma?

12 Comments
  1. I’m a fan of clarity in writing, especially important writing, like the writing of laws. Thus, I’m a fan of things that enhance clarity, such as the serial comma. Throughout the 1900s, English grammar was taught in accordance with very clear and logical rules of usage, and it’s very hip to trash those rules these days. Contemporary linguists love to do it, and love to speak of the history of language as an unmanageable, natural evolution. And okay, there’s some truth to that. But when smart people figure out how it works best, then the rest of us decide to say ah you know what forget it, that makes no sense to me. That’s how you get Trump elected, come to think.

  2. I was taught to use the Oxford comma, and despite the AP Stylebook saying it’s not mandatory every article I write contains the Oxford comma when appropriate. There are far too many issues when it’s not used, and none when it is. That fact alone should make it mandatory.

  3. My first quality writing instruction was in the journalism sector, so I was taught to not use serial comma unless it was needed for clarity. I don’t think it often is, but obviously there are times.

    As a substitute teacher I had some very condescending third graders reprimand me for not using it. They didn’t buy my explanation that some people who are not idiots don’t always use it.

    I already like to pepper my writing with plenty of clauses and commas so I personally prefer to keep it optional.

  4. yes, the comma, yes.
    And while we’re at it, why the change to have arguement spelled argument? ahhh, why can’t people make up their minds.

  5. Big fan of the Oxford comma. Using it can never hurt, while not using it can cause confusion or misinterpretation. So might as well use it!

  6. I was taught it was optional, and for the most part it is, but there are certainly situations in which meaning is changed by its exclusion. I tend to error on the side of using it, and even though it probably shouldn’t, it bugs men when people don’t.

  7. I use it. I live in Europe. Maybe it’s more prevalent here.

  8. I love this! For context, I am currently struggling to get back into college to work towards a Masters in Professional Writing. The battle over the comma and when to use it rages on! It is one of those subjects I hope to master!

    By the way, I love your stuff! You were the first (and currently only) person I follow on WordPress!

  9. Taught not to use it (in UK, despite Oxford being here!). Not necessary as that final ‘or’, ‘and’ or whatever acts as a comma in that it separates the last two items on the list. I can’t imagine what that judge was thinking.

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