The elusive Oxford comma has been in the news lately, with $10 million at stake. That’s one expensive punctuation mark.
As a writer, people come to me all the time with their grammatical conundrums. I edit their copy and rework sentences with ease, but one grammar rule has always been perplexing to me: the Oxford comma.
To better understand the Oxford comma, I researched the definition. “A comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’ (e.g. an Italian painter, sculptor, and architect ).” Even more simply, it’s the comma used after the second-to-last item in a list of three or more items. Style guides do not agree on the use of this comma. The AP style guide, which I follow, does not adhere to use of the Oxford comma.
A class action lawsuit hinged on this debate and ended up costing a company $10 million dollars. A state law about overtime pay regulation exemptions lacked an Oxford comma in this sentence:
“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.”
Should the law be read as exempting the distribution or it does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping and distribution? The drivers were subject to a law that possibly denied them thousands of dollars a year, depending on how the sentence was read. The court ruled in favor of the drivers and, in turn, the Oxford comma.
Oxford comma enthusiasts believe that using the comma makes the sentence consistent and others believe it shows the writer’s intelligence. Those opposed to the comma argue that if the sentence could cause confusion, it should be rewritten instead of inserting the comma.
Should you use the Oxford comma in your writing? I’m still not sure. On the pro-Oxford comma side, I would say getting your point across to the reader is important. If you’re writing the sentence, ”I love my dogs, chocolate and Lady Gaga,” someone could infer that your dogs are named chocolate and Lady Gaga, instead of a list of three distinct things you like. The comma could help to differentiate the list.
In the anti-Oxford comma camp, I would say that if your list might cause confusion, simply rewrite the sentence. Most of the time you can infer the meaning of the list from the surrounding context without the addition of an extra comma.
While the Oxford comma is optional, I bet that the company in Maine is wishing that the state law had included the Oxford comma in this sentence. The debate continues, with each writer taking their own stance on the subject. At $10 million dollars, it pays to be careful that your sentences are interpreted the way you intended them to be.