Court case opens up writer brawl over the Oxford comma

A missing comma in a Maine labor law cost dearly in a lawsuit. So should we all start using the serial comma? Slip on your brass knuckles and join the debate.

Some of us in the Ragan Communications newsroom were growing anxious this week when we realized that we hadn’t run across a good online brawl over the Oxford comma in weeks.

So it was a relief when we noticed a blowup on the web and in the Twittersphere over the use—or absence—of the shrimp-shaped punctuation.

A court’s decision in a Maine labor dispute hinged on the absence of an Oxford comma,” Quartz reported, adding, “A Maine court ruling in a case about overtime pay and dairy delivery didn’t come down to trucks, milk, or money. Instead, it hinged on one missing comma.”

CNN echoed the victory for proponents (or defeat for opponents) of what is also known as the serial comma—oddly using a URL that classified the story in its “Health” section. Perhaps they meant mental health, given the anxiety the comma, or its absence, induces.

Lawyers everywhere scurried to double-check the punctuation on their briefs. The Washington Post’s law blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, headlined it thus: ” A, B or C’ vs. ‘A, B, or C’ — the serial comma and the law.”

As Quartz explained:

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.

As Quartz adds, “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?”

Twitter erupts

Let the fisticuffs begin. In a story on the Maine decision, Mashable sighed, “Ah, the Oxford comma. Journalists often fight over it, academics love it and a lot of people don’t care about or even know what it is. But this singular bit of punctuation is actually super important.”

Naturally, not everyone agrees. The Associated Press Stylebook wants you to omit the final comma. It states, “Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

(Note the word “simple,” however. The AP does allow for exceptions for clarity in more complicated sentences. Or you could simply rewrite.)

Despite misconceptions, writers and editors omit the serial comma in much of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth outside of Oxford University Press. As Richard Dobbs notes in his online guide to grammar and style across the pond, “In British English, we do not generally use a listing comma after the penultimate item or phrase in a list or series of actions: He said his favourite writers were Robert Harris, C. J. Sansom and Elizabeth Speller.

AP begs to differ

With the Maine decision, Twitter Oxfordians celebrated by tearing down the gates of the AP style palace and hanging revolutionary flags in the window. @IAmOxfordComma tweeted a copy of the decision:

Communicators, naturally, were among those who took note:

The decision also caused anxiety in legal circles:

Anti-Oxfordians dismiss the serial comma as nothing more than “a speedbump on an exit ramp. It jars you and serves no purpose.”

James Taranto, a Wall Street Journal editor and Oxford comma skeptic, was silent on the recent decision. He has frequently scoffed, however, at arguments for the comma, suggesting it can cut both ways:

Revision helps

Me? I’m no authority, but like all writers I have my preferences. I count myself among Oxfordians, at least when not writing for publications that follow AP Style (as do Ragan Communications’ sites).

That said, a smidgeon of common sense goes a long way. My fellow comma freaks love pointing out the confusion inherent in some Oxford-comma-free-sentences, as in the strippers, JFK and Stalin example. But as readers, we find that example more amusing than confusing.

After all, when the majority of the English-speaking world gets by without that final comma, it’s hard to argue that it is essential. Perhaps we should trust readers’ brains to provide context in short lists of the colors of the flag—or the activities of presidents, tyrants and disrobed dancers.

Whatever the courts decide, the real lesson may be the need for clarity and concision. Unless we’re emulating Virginia Woolf or writing Homeric lists, we all might be well-served by breaking up and revising sentences that cause confusion.

@byworking

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