Ah, the Oxford comma. It’s just a tiny little squiggle of ink, but there’s an endless debate over its necessity and use.
Just last month, for example, a 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruling hung on the use — or lack of — the Oxford comma that a judge said changed the meaning of a law.
The Oxford, or serial comma, is the final one in a sentence that contains a list, coming before the conjunction. It is the bane of existence for most professional writers and editors, who are constantly explaining why it is useless and should be avoided, despite arguments the other way that seem to make sense on the surface.
The primary argument in favor of using the Oxford comma is that without it, sentences can get confusing. For example, they say, without the comma, the sentence, “I invited my parents, Kanye West and Lady Gaga” could mean that Kanye West and Lady Gaga are your parents and you invited them but if you wrote it, “I invited my parents, Kanye West, and Lady Gaga,” there would be no doubt.
To be fair, they are not wrong that the sentence is confusing. But as a professional editor, I will tell you that they are also wrong about the fix. A confusing sentence is a confusing sentence. Don’t add unnecessary punctuation; rewrite it to be less confusing: “I invited Kanye West, Lady Gaga and my parents.”
Simple, right? Problem solved. Oxford comma not needed. Argument ended.
Or so you would think.
This month, the argument over the Oxford comma found its way into the court system in a case involving overtime pay for workers at a Maine dairy, and I give major kudos to the lawyer that dreamt up this loophole. He may be wrong, but I want this guy on my side.
Maine law regarding an exemption on when a company has to pay overtime reads as such:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of .…”
The lawyer for the plaintiffs argued that because of the lack of an Oxford comma, “distribution” was not covered in the exemption and that workers should be paid for that time. Instead, the lawyer argued, the final item in the list was “packing for shipment or distribution.”
The judge, being a student of the law and not grammar, agreed, beginning the decision, “For the want of a comma, we have this case.” The judge went on to rule that the sentence was not clear, and under Maine law, unclear laws favor the employee, therefore the workers are entitled to overtime.
Look, I am all for workers getting paid what they are owed and sticking it to The Man, but that ruling is obviously wrong. And I say that because this is not a legal question, but a grammatical one. It is not an opinion. It has an actual answer and it’s one that is found in “Elements of Style” instead of a legal manual.
“Distribution” is quite obviously the last item in the list of exemptions. First, “packing for shipping” and “packing for distribution” mean the same thing, so “packing for shipping and distribution” would be redundant.
Second, the lack of a conjunction before “packing” but the placement of one before “distribution” indicates that the final item in the list of exemptions is “distribution” or else the sentence would read “The canning, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing OR packing for shipment and distribution. …”
Again, this is really not that complicated. All one has to do is read a book on grammar, perhaps THE book on grammar, “Elements of Style” by Strunk & White: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”
Again, problem solved; no comma needed.
But, of course, judges are not grammarians. They are experts in the law. Which is why one would hope that when this case is appealed — and it will be — they look to an expert in the same way they would if this case turned on the definition of a medical term or a the results from a chemistry lab.
Shoot, call me. I’d be happy to explain it for them again. I’m a professional, after all.
But until then, the Oxford comma is still useless. You can stop sending me these links or posting them on my Facebook wall, you’re still wrong.
I don’t care what the courts say.
Brian Beckley is the former editor of the Renton Reporter and is now an editor and writer in the magazine industry.