The Oxford comma has its day in court

I’m an editor. I favor the Oxford comma, but I have to admit it doesn’t fit in mysteries or crime fiction novels. Why? Fast-paced thrillers set the tension with short sentences—definitely no place for extra pauses to slow the action.

In business writing, there’s long been a battle surrounding inserting or omitting the comma in a series of three or more. I edit by the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) 16th Edition, which suggests using the Oxford comma based on H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd edition, 1965, and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition, revised (Bibliography 1.2). But that isn’t where I fell in love with the extra squiggle.

English was my niche in school. I relished phonics, spelling, vocabulary, and writing. I made life-long friends with the Oxford comma. Not because my father was English. Not because it was expected in business letters and reports. Because the extra pause clarifies the meaning and avoids ambiguity.

“She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.” (CMOS 6.18, page 312)

Those who argue that the Oxford comma isn’t necessary omit the comma after president. That changes the number of snapshots from three to two—one of her parents and one of the president and vice president.

So when is it better to omit the serial comma? When two words are understood as a pair.

“Their wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread and butter.”

Drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued for overtime wages in 2014 based on the interpretation of a Maine state law that denied that pay. The trial was bread and butter—actually about wages earned from delivering products.  Title 26 Labor and Industry, Chapter 7 Employment Practices, Subchapter 3, §664 Minimum Wages exempts some employees from earning overtime wages if associated with agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable food.

“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.”

The lawsuit was based on interpretation of “packing for shipment or distribution of…” as a pair. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the absence of a comma after shipment entitled the drivers to overtime. The finding are detailed in a twenty-nine page document.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Oxford comma finally has its day in court–and wins!

 

Still not convinced you should use the Oxford comma? Try this comma placement test.

I love eating my grandchildren and my dog.

Disclaimer: Cruelty free. This sentence was not tested on humans or animals.

 

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3 Comments

Filed under Editing, Events, Reading, Writing

3 responses to “The Oxford comma has its day in court

  1. You can be a Smart Alec!!!

    Take Care & Be Safe

    George

  2. Vi Parsons

    Love it! I would add my crafter’s website, but I’m re-checking the commas.

  3. Love it. After reading the newspaper, magazines, and online posts where the Oxford comma is no longer used, I sometimes think I too should drop its use. Then clarity raises his hand and says, “Don’t forget about me.” And once again that extra little comma slips into place.

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