OXFORD COMMA DEBATE
The Oxford (or serial) comma is the final comma in a list of things. For example, I would love to have a pear, a knife, and a napkin. The Oxford comma comes right after knife.
Use of the Oxford comma is stylistic, meaning that some style guides demand its use while others don’t. AP Style—the style guide that newspaper reporters adhere to—does not require the use of the Oxford comma. Unless you’re writing for a publication or drafting an essay for school, the use of the Oxford comma is generally up to you. However, omitting it can sometimes cause some strange misunderstandings. I love my girlfriend, Meryl Streep, and Jane Fonda.
Without the Oxford comma, the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your girlfriend, and they are Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda. Here’s the same sentence with the Oxford comma: I love my girlfriend, Meryl Streep, and Jane Fonda. Those who oppose the Oxford comma argue that rephrasing an already unclear sentence can solve the same problems that using the Oxford comma does. For example, I love Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda and my girlfriend.
Opinions among writers and editors differ on whether to use the Oxford comma, and usage also differs somewhat between regional varieties of English. A majority of American style guides mandate the use of the Oxford comma, including APA Style, The Chicago Manual of Style, The MLA Style Manual, Strunk and White’s Style Manual, and the Government Printing Office Manual. In contrast, the Associated Press Style Book advises against it. In Canada, the stylebook published by Canadian Press advises against it. It is used less often in England, but a few British style guides require it, notably The Oxford Style Manual. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, “Commas are used to separate items in a list or sequence … Usage varies as to the inclusion of a comma before and in the last item … This practice is controversial and is known as the Oxford comma because it is part of the house style of Oxford University Press.
WAIT A MINUTE—A CASE AT LAW OVER A COMMA?
The Maine dairy story is a convoluted story, as most law-related stories are. Here are the basics:
- In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay owed to them for deliveries they’d made.
- Oakhurst Dairy said NOPE, citing a law that lists distribution of dairy products as one of the activities ineligible for overtime pay.
- Maine state law at the time stated that workers are not entitled to overtime pay for: “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.”
- Aha…!the lawyer for the truck drivers said.
- Without a comma after “shipment,” it’s the packing “for shipment or distribution” that’s not eligible for overtime—not the distribution itself. Only with a comma would “distribution” have been included as one of the series of activities ineligible for overtime.
- So: the law does not apply to the deliveries the drivers made. Pay up, Oakhurst.
- The court (the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit) agreed—and took 29 pages to say as much. Oxford comma enthusiasts high-fived!
- Oakhurst Dairy settled, agreeing to pay $5 million to the drivers.
This case was a David-and-Goliath showdown between the little guys and the corporate overlord. And it has guys driving around in trucks with copies of Strunk & White in the glove box.
Why does something as pedantic and ordinary as grammar ignite raging debate—both in Maine and in the rest of world? Even when there isn’t actual money at stake? And more broadly: Why do some of us love to correct the grammar of others? Love to sharpen our grammar chops on the soft underbelly of those unfortunates who might use literally to mean figuratively? Who misspell lose as loose?
Maybe it has something to do with that word “rules” when it’s paired with “grammar”: Grammar rules seem strict, impenetrable, and unyielding. Some grammar rules are more like laws or statutes—breaking them quickly creates anarchy. But others are more open to interpretation: Splitting infinitives (to boldly go is a famous one). Ending a sentence with a preposition. Using “they” as a singular pronoun. And the Oxford comma.
ARE ALL GRAMMARIANS JUDGY AND HUMORLESS?
The type to correct you silently at a lunch counter when you’re ordering a sandwich.
Well, most grammar sticklers I know come at it less based in judgment than in something more generous: They want us all to be understood! “Grammar rules” stirs up in the righteous a feeling of right and wrong, of needing to put a stake in the ground, to polarize language: Black and white. Off and on. Yes and no. Smart and stupid. Occasionally it really matters (overtime or no overtime). But often it just doesn’t.