Take That, AP Style! Court of Law Rules The Oxford Comma Necessary

Take That, AP Style! Court of Law Rules The Oxford Comma Necessary

“Who gives a $#%& about an Oxford comma?”

So goes one of my favorite lyrics by Vampire Weekend, and the answer to date has largely been: grammar nerds, Strunk & White and those who follow the infamous Chicago vs. AP style debate.

Now, we can add dairy driver to the list.

That’s because an appellate court recently ruled in favor of Maine dairy drivers in a labor dispute that hinged on the oft-debated piece of punctuation.

For anyone who’s ever wondered what all the fuss is about over Oxford commas, the circuit judge’s opinion says it all: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

Why an extra comma matters

For those in need of a grammar refresh, the Oxford (or serial) comma is a comma placed between the last two items in a series of three or more. For instance, “I like cake, pizza, and ice cream.”

Proponents of the Oxford comma argue it’s necessary to avoid potential ambiguity.

In the example sentence, it’s clear I like three types of food in and of themselves. Remove it and the sentence reads, “I like cake, pizza and ice cream” — leading to the potential to read the last two items as one combination item. I no longer like pizza and ice cream on their own, one could argue; I like pizza and ice cream only when they’re together. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

It was precisely this type of ambiguity that led to the Maine case.

The $10 million comma

In this class action lawsuit, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued the company over its failure to grant them overtime pay. According to Maine law, workers are entitled to 1.5 times their normal pay for any hours worked over 40 per week. However, there are exemptions to this rule. Specifically, companies don’t need to pay overtime for the following activities:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;
  2. Meat and fish product; and
  3. Perishable foods

Note the end of the opening line, where there is no comma before the “or.”

Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to list “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two separate exempt activities.

However, the drivers argued the letter of the law said no such thing. Without that telltale Oxford comma, the law could be read to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution. Distribution by itself, in this case, would not be exempt.

Without that comma, as the judge maintained, this distinction was not clearcut:

Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.

As a result, the court found in favor of the drivers, costing the dairy an estimated $10 million.

oxford comma debate

To comma, or not to comma?

As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day. While many of the sites I write for as a freelance blogger follow AP style (including this one), which is sans-serial comma, I still sneak one in when it seems needed to avoid potential confusion. This case backs up that habit as more than just an old-school tic I haven’t yet let go.

While the debate may still rage on over whether Oxford commas are necessary all the time, this ruling upholds the practice of using them when they’re essential to ward off ambiguity.

So, who gives a $#%& about an Oxford comma? The answer, according to the courts, is officially: anyone who’s interested in clarity.

(Take that, AP style!)

What do you think? Are you pro-Oxford comma as a rule, or only in specific circumstances?

Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor; follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.

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  • This was a fun, useful, and enlightening post. I use Oxford commas frequently, as you can see. I just never knew that’s what they were. Long live the Oxford comma!

    • Karen says:

      Never understood the importance of the Oxford comma. I understand it now. Thanks for enlightening me.

      • Nancy H. Erdmann says:

        6/20/17 I would not be opposed to innovation per se, but I have an intuition that it is just simpler and simply better to use the Oxford comma as most of us were taught to. To my eye, using the comma balances the sentence better. But, also, to be practical, if you use the Oxford comma every time, you run no risk or being misunderstood ( which, it seems, could happen relatively easily no matter how careful you were). And, as in this peobably rare instance, you would not have to pay a large sum of money if your lack of a comma did cause a major ruction!

    • Jeannie Brewer says:

      Amen! Long live the Ixfird comma. I taught journalism and English. What a mess unless people use their brains about items listed. 😄

    • John says:

      Love the comma. Wrote my dissertation in APA 5th edition, yuck!

    • Vaughn Hathaway says:

      What does Harbrace-Court say?

    • Clay says:

      I was taught to use the Oxford comma and have used it for 50 years. It doesn’t often make a difference, but if you use the Oxford comma all the time abiguity is usually prevented.

    • kenneth nutt says:

      i have always used and love the Oxford comma,it will be lost in the future by text speak,which i find difficult to understand,like Gangsta Rap.! My pet hate is the pronunciation of Ate,which should rhyme with bet not bait.!

    • Fred Swim says:

      Great article! My advice to the employer: keep it simple; “We do not pay overtime.”

    • Fred Jacobowitz says:

      I enjoyed reading the article and the comments. My advice to the employer: keep it simple; “We do not pay overtime.”

  • Oxford comma loyalist here too! Love this post. TY.

  • John Soares says:

    I’m an Oxford comma guy. Using Oxford commas is an easy way to avoid having a reader trip over your words or, worse, misunderstand you.

    • M.Julia Regan says:

      I believe in the use of commas, including the Oxford comma as well as proper English, in general.

  • I think it’s easier to use a consistent rule than to parse degrees of ambiguity, so I would prefer to use the commas all the time.

    Sometimes, when style manuals or dictionaries set out to “change the rules,” it comes across as adolescent rebellion against the high school teachers who used to mark up the stylists’ compositions in red rather than a carefully reasoned judgment that the newer way has enough advantages to justify it. (Some years ago, I edited a few books for a publisher whose dictionary of choice was American Heritage, and its differences from Merriam Webster always came across that way to me.)

    Of course, editors tend to be a linguistically conservative lot. We accept that language usage evolves, but it’s our job, indeed, our mission in life, to make sure it does so as SLOWLY as possible!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Editorial Services and Writer’s Resources

    • Victoria says:

      Right on!

      • philip d. space says:

        Write on!

        • B. Rilett says:

          I was at the national conference of ACES: Society for Editing where these dabates play out annually, but this battle is done. The new AP Style manual says to add the serial/Oxford comma to avoid confusion or ambiguity, whereas CMOS 17 continues to recommend the serial/Oxford comma generally. Use whatever serves clarity. There isn’t much debate.
          Let’s turn our attention to the gender-neutral, singular pronoun “they” for someone/anyone//none/person/ and other gender-unspecified subjects. We already use “you” as singular and plural. Let’s spread the word on this bold change, conditionally endorsed by AP and CMOS.

          • Connie says:

            I use it when I see that there is no way to differentiate genders in a sentence. Have done so for a long time. Didn’t know I was a “trend-setter”! Thanks for the info.

          • Michelle says:

            I think I love you.

          • Georgia Nagle says:

            Yes to the Oxford comma. And yes to not referring to a person as “they.” As in, “I just went through a divorce because they were physically abusive to me.” This contributes mightily to my high blood pressure.

          • Mona says:

            We don’t need “they.” as a singular. Most of the time all it needs is to make the point in the plural. But I’ll tolerate that if you’ll just not say “Me and George went to movies.” Or “He went to the movies with George and I.”

            OK. It’s a losing battle. but it still hurts my ear — maybe even my heart.

          • Brent says:

            MLA already accepted the singular “they” as of 2015/2016.

    • Twirlmom says:

      Yes to everything you posted!!!

    • Sharon says:

      Yes, language evolves, but punctuation was establised for clarity long ago when sentences ran together with no punctuatuin can you imagine trying to understand an authors intent without these tiny helpful dots slashes curvy lines etc see what I mean

      As you might surmise, I am a fan of the Oxford comma. I worked for years as an editor of computerized test questions that had to meet a specific length requirement. We sometimes had to eliminate that final comma to meet the requirement, but we then risked less clarity in the question. We would find a shorter synonym, if possible, to retain the comma.

    • Marjorie Power says:

      “to parse degrees of ambiguity…”. Excellent description. Thank you!

  • Gail Govan says:

    I have come to realize over the past few years that ambiguity is the curse of our age. Or one of them anyway. I have been a dentist (retired now) and ambiguity is not one of my options! Let’s see. Shall I just stick my whirling handpiece in that mouth and see which tooth I might repair. No, the plan has to be perfectly clear. Oxford commas always, Please!

  • C. S. Lakin says:

    Thank you for this. There is no dispute. If you’re writing books for the US market, CMOS says yes on the serial comma. While in some cases it’s not going to change the meaning of a sentence if you leave out that last serial comma, you “err” on the side of clarity and being concise and consistent by sticking with it. I’m a stickler for this rule and for good reason! Any editor following US style needs to obey it 🙂

  • Kitty Price says:

    I saw the same article a couple of weeks ago about my dear friend, the O comma, winning that Maine case. As both a retired lawyer and a freelance writer, first I laughed out loud in total glee. Way to go, little O!!!

    Then I sent the link to my editor at one of the content mills I write for who are the most die-hard AP style people I’ve ever run across. Her reply was that she’s a closet O comma fan, too, but an editor can only dream that AP might some day see the light.

    BTW, I call the ever-increasing ambiguity crisis The Tower of Babel Syndrome! :-}

  • John Benson says:

    I try to live with the old-school rule of communication has two parts – sender and receiver. If the receiver has doubt, the sender takes the responsibility.

    • Rosann says:

      Then take it, John Benson.

    • Maddie Cullen says:

      In response to the old school form of communication, there are many new developments that say that theory is outdated. One must take many things into consideration from both sender and receiver positions.

      For example: I am on a rollercoaster and I tell the person next to me, “This is so fun,” but they can’t hear my message because of our environment. This is not the senders responsibility for the receiver not being able to understand the message. My non verbal cues (an aspect not taken into consideration with the old communication theory) may help them understand my message, but ultimately there is little burden on either party.

      • PhilRichmond says:

        Wrong, so wrong! It is always the senders responsibility to send the message in a manner that the receiver can understand.Thus, it is the senders responsibility to compensate for the environment NOT the receiver for the receiver does not know a message is being sent unless the sender sends a clear message.

  • Janette says:

    “Way to go, little O” indeed, Kitty. Agreed.

    You might find this amusing:

  • Shannon says:

    The best thing about this article? The writer’s bio does not include the Oxford Comma. 🙂

  • Oxford commas for LIFE!

  • Liz Lawson says:

    I’m an AP Style gal. XD There are definitely cases wherein the comma is necessary, and that is when AP uses a comma. The age-old argument between the Oxford comma and none always refers to those cases, as if AP Style would forgo a comma, but not to the cases wherein redundancy would be to include a comma&mdash:e.g. “I have a cat, dog and gerbil.”

    I’ve been in favor of only using the serial comma in specific circumstances since becoming a journalist.

    +1 for no serial comma in your bio! (+1 for the person who called it, too.)

    • Michael says:

      The problem is, leaving out the serial comma means that you’re telling the dog and the gerbil that you have a cat. Does that make any sense? No, of course it doesn’t, nor did you mean to imply that you’re doing such a silly thing. But to a reader, it does indeed look as though you are politely informing your other pets of an addition to the family. This is why AP Style, which seeks to save on the cost of ink in the most asinine manner imaginable, is just flat out wrong. It shouldn’t be left up to readers to decipher a writer’s meaning just because some stingy publisher is trying to cut corners.

      • Erick Senkmajer says:


      • Danita says:

        I quit a job bc of a variety of management issues. Two of those issues were the omission of the Oxford comma and double spacing after a period. My old Stageberg and Pence training would not Rest In Peace.

      • timbck2 says:


      • Jeremy says:

        Except no one would actually read it that way, and the context of the writing could completely nullify your argument.
        “Do you have any pets?” she asked.
        “I have a cat, dog and gerbil.”
        I agree with not using it when it’s simple and quick to tell that it’s logically redundant.

      • Mark Matchen says:


        Your claim is only correct because “I have a cat, dog and gerbil” is grammatically incorrect already. It needs to be “I have a cat, a dog and a gerbil.” No ambiguity.

      • Michael says:

        The use of the Oxford comma in cases like this can actually increase ambiguity. Consider the sentence, “I like cars, Mary, and boats.” Do I like three things? Or am I addressing Mary? Dropping the last comma produces an ambiguity where I might be addressing “Mary and boats,” but since that doesn’t make any sense, any reader can infer the correct usage, whereas the case with the Oxford comma offers no contextual clues for which is the correct interpretation.

      • Yvonne says:

        That’s the sort of sentence where I would write: “I have a cat, a dog and a gerbil.” The indefinite article “a” clarifies the sense (I am not addressing my pet “dog” and pet “gerbil”), but no comma (Oxford or any other sort) is needed because “and” joins the last two nouns in the list of animals which I own (or, at least in the case of the cat, which own me). Also, if I want to call someone’s attention to my words, I generally say, “NAME and NAME, how about going out for dinner?” or “DOG and GERBIL, I have a cat!” [The latter statement would undoubtedly excite my hypothetical non-feline pets.] 🙂

    • Maddie Cullen says:

      What size is your dog/gerbal hybrid?

    • Marcia says:

      Why not just say a cat, a dog and a gerbil to clarify that the writer is not speaking to the dog and gerbil (or the dog and the gerbil)?

      • Beth says:

        If the purpose of omitting the Oxford comma is to save ink, wouldn’t clarifying with “a” or “the” before each animal add 3-9 characters where a simple comma could make the distinction using just one small punctuation mark?

    • Keane says:

      What Liz said. AP allows for the Oxford comma in cases where ambiguity could occur. The issue with the contract is unique because it’s written in shorthand, which is why ambiguity could easily occur (the omission of certain conjunctions occurs).

      I use AP Style mostly because I feel like it flows better, but I’m not a hater of the comma. Language is fluid and a style is mainly for consistency. Again, AP allows for the serial comma in cases of ambiguity.

      It boggles my mind why any intelligent reader would see “I like cake, pizza and ice cream” and assume the author likes pizza with ice cream. If anything, it would be “I like cake, and pizza and ice cream.”

      In a reply, someone said “I have a cat, dog and gerbil” sounds like you’re telling your dog and gerbil that you have a cat. Why would anyone logically think that, even out of context? Within context I’m certain there’s no ambiguity.

      I’m 100% for the serial comma when ambiguity could occur and in cases like contracts where specificity is paramount, but some of the arguments for militantly sticking to the extra comma are so absurd it implies readers are idiots.

  • Mimi Foster says:

    Loved this post! I’m an Oxford comma girl all the way!

  • Sheri says:

    I do not like the Oxford comma. It is a waste of space. Each one is a cause for pause. Whenever I run across one I pause and ponder the author’s choice of adding bulk to an otherwise concise sentence.

  • Judy Marish says:

    I love grammar, horses, cupcakes, and the Oxford comma.

  • Brit Haines says:

    As someone who often feels like the only one to stand by Oxford commas, I’m so happy to see this ruling (and that there are other writers who love it as much as I do)!

    Fantastic post!

  • Robert says:

    I could not study through grades one to twelve, so my grammar is bad at best. But I feel protected, because of my overuse of the coma, which protects my self defense, and my martial arts class, and as a paid writer, I always put more than enough commas, to protect me.

    • Gail Govan says:

      oh ha, ha, ha, ha. I love this comment.

    • Rick says:


      Shouldn’t that be “myself”, not “me”?

      “I always put more than enough commas, to protect myself.”

      • Mikeski says:

        “But I feel protected, because of my overuse of the coma, which protects my self defense, and my martial arts class, and as a paid writer, I always put more than enough commas, to protect me.”

        Should that not be ” … martial arts class, and, as a paid writer, I always put more than enough commas, to protect me.” with the extra comma before the “as a paid writer”.

        Probably also “…myself.” as Rick suggests.
        As this is a correct use of the reflexive pronoun. The person writing is both the subject and object of the sentence.

  • Kimberly says:

    I am #TeamOxfordComma and have been since grade school. Hopefully, this will lead to less confusion clearer sentence structure!!! Yippee!!

  • Kimberly says:

    I meant less confusion and clearer sentence structure!!!

  • Dale Paruk says:

    Love it! Count me as a fan of the Oxford Comma and your excellent article!

    Thank you.
    Dale Paruk

  • Kitty Price says:

    I’m just soooo glad to see that there are so many of us Oxford comma fans out there. I’ve been feeling like a lone survivor for quite awhile, but this article has awakened the proverbial sleeping giant. YAY!!!!

  • I am from the UK. I was brought up to consider the Oxford comma unnecessary at best, and wrong at worst. However, there are circumstances, like this case, where the Oxford comma is necessary for clarity. Each sentence must be considered carefully to see if it is clearer with or without the comma.
    If you don’t want to do bother thinking, then the use of the Oxford comma will save you the bother.

    • Cheryl Tuskes says:

      I completely agree with you Vivienne!

    • Lucian says:

      You are effectively saying that the Oxford comma is a proper and safe default to ensure clarity over confusion. The only logical assumption one can make from your position is that you believe your ideas and ability to communicate are so stunningly clear as to obviate any need for consideration of your readers, including those without the same cultural and linguistic points of reference you yourself hold.

      Is this the message you intended?

      (proffered in a friendly, chiding, and casual way)


    • Anna Parkinson says:

      I, too, was brought up in the British education system, which deemed the Oxford comma unnecessary. Since moving to the US, I have found it useful to use, for clarity, on a case-by-case basis.

    • Ernie Brill says:

      maybe this is part of the problem with the British who think they still rule the world and know everything and often produce immensely boring writers who have no juice,zest, or common sense. Hail to that third comma. Life blood of the comman man and comman woman. If you want lucid writing, use the Oxfor comma.

  • Tim! says:

    I was taught that a comma in text generally corresponds to a small pause in speech.

    My favorite example in favor of the comma goes like “I went to Vegas with Keith, a clown, and my pastor.” Three people. Versus “I went to Vegas with Keith, a clown and my pastor.” One person. When I speak these sentences, I distinguish them by the length of the pause between “clown” and the conjunction.

    The oxford comma feels right.

    • In this case, if there are 3 people, it’s one of the times when it’s needed to make it clear. I agree with you about the slight pause. Thet’s what I learned too.

    • Lewis says:

      Actually, these examples are just ambiguous in different ways. Sentence A: “I went to Vegas with Keith, a clown, and my pastor.” This could either be a list of 3 people (K, clown, pastor) or it could be 2 people (Keith, who is a clown, and your pastor). And sentence B: “I went to Vegas with Keith, a clown and my pastor.” This could be 1 person (Keith, who is both a clown and your pastor) or 3 people (K, clown, pastor—readily interpretable in spite of lacking a serial comma).
      It’s no good pretending that you can eliminate ambiguity in writing, though you can try to minimize ambiguity. But either way, the reader will always have a lot of interpretation work to.

      • Lucian says:

        And this is the heart of the matter: intent. Rather than look up AP v Chicago for authority, the communication should be taken as a whole.

        Why argue over whether Keith is a clown and pastor, a clown who attended along with a pastor, or one of a triad, why not simply list the proper noun at the end? We are allowed to do this in English; let’s leverage our freedoms!

        Convention in English holds that you move from the general to the specific, and so the likelihood of confusion is greatly reduced with a simply transposition, to wit: …a clown, my pastor, and Keith.

        It’s far less likely that someone will confuse this order, though still possible. Ordering ‘my pastor, a clown, and Keith’ implies the pastor is a clown by this same convention.

        We have so many options with language, why do we insist on missing the forest for the trees? Go forth and rewrite!

        • Skiff says:

          Semicolons. Everyone loves the Oxford comma cause it’s easy, but no-one cares about old semicolon for actual clarity of lists.

          I went to Vegas with Keith; a clown; and my pastor.

          0 ambiguity.

          And, afaik, commas within list items are not an express requirement of the semicolon’s list usage.

          • Lucian says:

            Interesting perspective! I tend to use semi-colons in a list following a colon where each list item requires or is expressed with additional description. That further implies a restructured development of the sentence leading up to the list. For example: I went there with three people: my friend, Keith; a clown with a drinking problem; and my pastor, who is neither the clown nor Keith.

            …rewritten for vague comedy.

            In this case, we are sacrificing brevity for certainty – surely acceptable when ambiguity could cause significant problems, but a waste of space and time for casual misunderstandings that may have little to no actual impact.

    • L K Miller says:

      To nit-pick: “I went to Vegas with Keith, a clown, and my pastor” can also be construed as going with two people: “Keith, [who is] a clown, and my pastor.” In this case, more than the Oxford comma is needed to clarify.

  • Tim Chambers says:

    While I totally agree with the court’s ruling, the more pressing question should be: why did the state legislature feel the pressing need to disenfranchise an entire group of workers for the sole benefit of their employer(s)? On what basis was it found necessary to deprive this particular industries workers of the rules normally regarded as standard practice in any other? Shame on the legislature….for both it’s wanton disregard for it’s state’s residents, as well as it’s lack of grammatical understanding.
    (Note: the author of the above comment makes no claim or warranty as to the grammatical correctness of it’s contents)

    • Tim Chambers says:

      ^^^Such as the use of the word pressing twice^^^ 🙄

    • Mikeski says:

      I would also make the comment that the additional errant apostrophe in “it’s” changes it from the possessive “its” to the condensed “it is”. Just saying .. ☺

    • Jessica Lanham says:

      Isn’t also interesting that in the included quote of the overtime exemption rule, the bullets to clarify the products used a form of Oxford punctuation?

      1. Agricultural produce;
      2. Meat and fish product; and
      3. Perishable foods

      I think the inclusion of the semi-colon further strengthens the judge’s ruling, even though I would argue those are grammatically unnecessary.

    • Merry Maisel says:

      “its,” not “it’s,” is the possessive case you want…

  • Doree Stone says:

    The rules of language and punctuation are very important. People generally tend to think those of us who insist on proper language are anal. However, the only way we can communicate with one another is through oral and written language. If communication isn’t clear, problems may arise that can cost money, time, frustration, anger, physical harm, legal issues, and even death. (Notice, please, that I used an Oxford comma.) The rules of language, like manners, aren’t to make life more restrictive. They are to standardize things so that everyone can be comfortable and understand clearly those around them and what is expected and acceptable. It ensures that no one need feel out of place or misunderstood.

  • Scott says:

    Fun article from a grammar perspective, although the writer seems to have made a factual mistake in the paragraph which begins: “Oakhurst Dairy argued…” It distracted and confused me by misstating the dairy’s position, and led me to look up the case file online. I guess there’s Grammar Police and then there’s also Journalism Police. 🙂

    • Robert Sawtelle says:

      Scott, you are correct, I also had to google the case as the description flipped who felt what the lack of an Oxford comma denoted. Although I believe the intent was to except the “packing for shipment or distribution” as a separate activity and the drivers are indeed entitled to overtime.

    • Pamela says:

      Thank you, Scott, for confirming my suspicions about the breakdown in meaning. For a minute I thought I was losing my edge as a reader!

  • Alexis says:

    First, thank you, Scott, for clarifying whose arguments were whose. I also found the article confusing, both for that misrepresentation and for what I suspect may be a misstatement about what the Oxford comma actually changes. (Was the other writer joking, by the way, about “coma” and the repeated misuse of “it’s”?) As a literature professor in four languages, my old school education was that one uses only one comma in listing three items: a, b and c; however, when listing four or more items, each should be separated by a comma: a, b, c, and d. The Oxford comma, instead, requires separating as few as three items each with a comma: a, b, and c. So, when I had to start teaching the Oxford comma to English composition students a quarter of a century ago, I did not find the Oxford comma to be old school but to be new and awkward. So, the argument on the dairy case was easy to understand, as read. Since there were many more than three items, if there was any misreading, it was for want of a simple, standard serial comma, not necessarily an Oxford comma. Or else there was no misreading.

  • Ray says:

    This judgement should be challenged. Comma or not, if “packing for shipment or distribution” was to be viewed as one, then another ‘or’ is required before packing. In any list of items, the last item is separated by ‘and’ or ‘or’.

    • DC says:

      Grammatically speaking, yes, there should be another comma. But the “or” was used incorrectly and there are only two ways to correct for that. It should have been either “, or packing for shipment or distribution…” OR “packing for shipment, or packing for distribution…”

  • April says:

    AP actually revised the stylebook so that the oxford comma can be used to avoid confusion. Check out Grammar Girl’s 562nd episode from March 31, or look up the transcript. The article title is AP Style and Chicago Updates from #ACES2017.

    • April says:

      Another change they could have made was “distributing” instead of “distribution” to keep up with continuity.

      • Nancy says:

        I had the same thought before I forced myself to think only about the comma situation. You’re right, though, switching to a noun instead of a present participle caused a hiccup in the flow of its readabilty.

        • Nancy says:

          Actually, no! I retract the above comment.

          After rereading the italicized contract excerpt, the intended meaning became grammatically clear:
          – The list of excluded activities uses present participles, the final activity being “packing.” The packers could be packing for shipment or for distribution.
          – The words “shipment” and “distribution” are both objects of the preposition “for;” that is why the writer of the contract chose nouns, not participles.
          – Furthermore, the word “of” is also a preposition. In this case it applies to all of the preceding present participles, not just to the last one (packing). So, each of the eight activities listed are sharing the “of.”

          To test the meaning of this excerpt as it is written, one need only rewrite it as eight separate sentences:

          1) … Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the canning of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          2) … Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the processing of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          3) … Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the preserving of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          4) … Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the freezing of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          5) … Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the drying of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          6)… Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the marketing of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          7) … Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the storing of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          8) … Companies don’t need to pay overtime for the packing for shipment or distribution of agricultural produce, meat and fish product, and perishable foods.

          – If that is not how the contract was intended to be interpreted, then there was, indeed, a grammatical error in its printed form. That is all. /;~}

  • Fran Byrne says:

    This so interesting. I was not aware that there were choices in the use or nonuse in this way. I was taught in grammar school that a comma was not necessary after the last word in the list that occurred before the word and. That was clarification enough. The last two subjects, separated by the word “and” indicates the words were separate and the end of the list.

    • Linda from Tampa says:

      As with Fran, I was taught to not use a comma before the and. I did not know there was another right way. I, also, did not know there were names for these commas. My, my, how times have changed. I, now, can do it anyway I want and still be correct.

      • I had to look up what an Oxford comma is. Like you, I had no idea there was a school of thought that a comma could go before the ‘and’ in a list, let alone that it had a name. And why Oxford’?
        I also thought that the Oxford comma and the seial comma were one and the same, but an earlier comment seems to suggest they are different. In that case, what is a serial comma?

  • Gschramm says:

    Hate to disagree with an esteemed judge, but he’s wrong.

    If the company meant for “packing for shipment or distribution” to be one thing, then the sentence would read: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, OR packing for shipment or distribution of”

    The sentence as it’s in the contract might at first seem like it needs the comma to avoid confusion, it doesn’t. Without “OR” in there, there is no other grammatical way of reading the sentence in any other than what the company meant.

    • Michael says:

      The sentence as it’s in the contract might at first seem like it needs the comma to avoid confusion, it doesn’t.

      This sentence is proof that many people do not understand the difference between a comma and a period. A comma is used to give a pause within a sentence. A period is meant to end it, and a semi-colon is used to join two complete but related sentences.

      The sentence as it’s in the contract might at first seem like it needs the comma to avoid confusion. It doesn’t.

      The sentence as it’s in the contract might at first seem like it needs the comma to avoid confusion; it doesn’t.

      Here endeth the lesson. ;^)

      • timbck2 says:

        Semicolons are also used serially in place of commas in cases where the items in the list themselves contain commas. For example:

        I went to the store to buy sugar, a natural sweetener; stevia, another natural sweetener; and Splenda, an artificial sweetener.

  • Michael says:

    I should think that now business owners trying to stiff workers out of fair pay for their labor care about the Oxford, or serial, comma, seeing as how their failure to use it has cost them millions of dollars.

  • Pauline says:

    As an English teacher, I have always preferred using the Oxford comma for exactly this reason!

  • James Gillmon says:

    I have read that the lack of a comma before “and” in a series is the British style, and the use of one is American. Although I don’t know if this is true, I do know that I was always taught to use one here in America. Shame on anyone who tries to cheat workers out of overtime!

  • LynnB says:

    Without the comma’s you could have cake pizza and ice cream. Cake pizza might be delicious with ice cream.

    • ed bruder says:


    • If you have no commas at all, like your example, you would be eating a cake pizza with ice cream. Commas are required between things in a list. The argument is whether one is needed before the ‘and’. The list would not be confusing if it read cake, pizza and ice cream.

      • Jeriah says:

        Yes, I believe that is exactly what was said. Cake pizza and ice cream. The further comment about “cake pizza” being potentially delicious pointed that out…

  • Heather says:

    Barf. I loathe the Oxford comma!

  • Cam Peneff says:

    I have a dog named Marley, and like many dog owners I speak to her like a human. I am certainly not an expert at grammar. And this is likely a different application, but the same principle applies. Clarity. And dogs certainly can’t read. But if I were to show her the two sentences below her reaction would likely be quite different. Let’s go eat, Marley. Means together let’s go eat. Let’s go eat Marley. Means Marley is on the menu. Nasty.

    • Barbara says:

      That’s called a noun of direct address. A comma should be used to separate it from the rest of the sentence whether the noun of direct address is placed at the beginning, middle, or end of the sentence.

      • Jessica Lanham says:

        Correct, it’s the vocative case of the noun, which is usually denoted with a comma. These types of distinctions are generally more important in other languages than English because of declension and also because of English’s emphasis on syntax.

        For example:
        Horses run free.
        A simple declarative sentence in which the author/speaker states an action.

        Horses, run free.
        This sentence is also simple, but in this one horses are directly addressed and commanded to do an action (imperative tense).

  • Sam says:

    I’m still grappling with the fact that the author of this article put her punctuation inside of the quotes. I know… I know… That’s the way they do it in America.

    • Patti Haygarth says:

      I’m sure you meant to write quotation marks instead of quotes.
      “quotation marks” is the noun
      “quotes” is the verb (third person singular, present tense)”
      I just think that if a person wants to correct others, it’s important to be correct when correcting others.

  • Bob says:

    I was never taught the “Oxford Comma” in school. But when I was showed it in a proposal writing course through work, I fell in love with it.

    So now that this controversy has been solved, can we get back to the “Double Space after a Period” debate!

    (sorry, old typesetter here!)

    • Mike says:

      Absolutely, never do without them. Yes, that gap may look a little large in fully justified but in anything else it looks much better. It is not a case of “evolving style” which we “must accept” and move on.
      Mind you, as I am from the Eastern side of the Atlantic, I am also tending to oppose the excessive use of the “z” but I am sure that is a lost cause – given the way that MSoft and Facebook always seem to revert to it!😈

  • Chuck says:

    Not sure Maine has any say in federal labor laws that also say hours worked over 40 are 1.5x. I doubt drivers are exempt workers so the whole premise of the court case is in question and, thus, so is this article.

    • Barbara says:

      Regardless of the legal principles involved in the actual case, this article is useful to illustrate the necessity of the Oxford comma, I think.

  • Frylock says:

    This post has been up for 11 days, and the author still hasn’t edited it to include a serial comma in the first paragraph, nor in her bio. This doesn’t bode well for her credibility.

  • B says:

    This article is poorly written. The arguments presented are backwards. The company’s argument would not be that it only applies to packing as this article implies. The spirit of the law says that the exemptions would apply to both packing and distribution and the letter of the law (as determined) by the judge was that the exemption only applies to packing.

    • Emma says:

      Yes! Thank you. I kept reading it over and over and it didn’t make sense- the writer has confused the argument of the dairy company with the argument of the workers. For someone who appreciates clarity, it’s quite an oversight.

  • Barbara says:

    “As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day.”
    Excuse me, Ma’am, your modifier is dangling!
    Oxford comma always and forever

  • RJ O'Hara says:

    Score one fore accuracy, and the serial comma (let’s drop its stuffy British “surname”; maybe prejudice against it will drop off?).

  • James Lindley says:

    I was reading about this case a couple weeks ago in an enewsletter by a fellow fan of the Oxford comma (thisistrue.com). I always use the Oxford comma.

  • Don says:

    If the contract intended to exclude distribution from overtime, the contract needed to be written as such. A coma wouldn’t have have clarified that. To clearly exclude distribution from overtime, it should have read

    “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, distribution or packing for shipment of:”

    • Nancy says:

      The way the contract is written, it says that the employees who DISTRIBUTE the product should be eligible for overtime pay. DISTRIBUTING was not included in the list of exclusions.

      Only the employees who PACK FOR DISTRIBUTION are excluded from that benefit.

      Is that how everyone interprets this piece?

  • Lori says:

    Pro, pro, and pro. I am also a fan–a huge fan–of the em dash. I I am known to get (a teensy bit) parenthetical at times. But thanks to the Millennial generation we can also enjoy the impact of the pack-the-punch period. Halle. Frickin. Lujah.

  • Bj Wood says:

    I am an old boomer. I remember being taught the Oxford comma was optional. Reading the many clever examples above convinced me the Oxford comma is essential.
    This is a fun article. Thank you all.

  • Patti Haygarth says:

    I teach my students to use the Oxford comma all the time; it is never wrong to use it, but it can be horrendous to omit it.
    My favourite example: “I would like to thank my parents, Jesus and Oprah Winfrey.”
    I do not claim authorship for the example, but I do think it’s brilliant…and implies that Jesus’s last name is Winfrey. 😁

    • As I said earlier, there are some occasions when it is useful to prevent misconceptions. This is one of them, but in the following–we had bread, butter and pate for lunch–there is no problem.

      • Barbara says:

        I think the lack of ambiguity in that case stems from the fact that there are three items in that series. If the author intended to list only two items, she would need to insert another “and”: “bread and butter and pate.” To make that list unambiguous, I think she would need a comma, even though the use of one in a series of two items is generally considered nonstandard: “bread and butter, and pate.” What do you all think?

  • Well, it’s necessary if you’re writing legal agreements, patents, instructions or anything else you want to insure what it is you’re attempting to communicate is understood.

    It’s not necessary if it’s your intension to look like an idiot.

  • Ben says:

    Can’t help but notice that you left an Oxford Comma out of the very first paragraph of this piece. I guess you are anti-.

  • Kohlrak says:

    The whole point of grammar rules is for clarity. The rules matter not when clarity is not sacrificed by laziness, but if your message cannot be interpreted, it’s not worth anything at all.

  • Sandra Roddenberry says:

    I am a huge believer in the Oxford comma, and, in a moment of reflection, I wrote this “news” article to honor his passing.

    Mr. Oxford Comma Memorialized in Style

    CHICAGO – After years of providing clarity in the literary world and working closely with conjunctions such as And and Or, Mr. Oxford “Half-Stop” Comma was laid to rest this week. His memorial was punctuated by exclamations that highlighted his service to prose, questions that marked his untimely passing and a sense of finality to this period of writing excellence.

    The attendees included Period, Question Mark, Exclamation Point, and Dash among others. Hyphen sent her condolences as she was unable to attend due to her involvement with the little-known seminar entitled “Just When Exactly Do You Need Me?” Apostrophe was also unable to take part due to contractions; however, a couple of articles, A and The, were among the guests. They had been quite determined to attend, though The was definite and A was not.

    Exclamation Point was the spark of the event, though, as is widely known, a little bit of his passion goes a long way!!! Question Mark spoke hypothetically about what it would be like if he were to lose Inflection as his sentence-ending buddy, equating it to And losing Oxford, saying, “It leaves readers with the uncomfortable feeling that something is missing.”

    And and Or gave the most impressive and emotional eulogies, mourning the loss of Oxford and praising his support of writers everywhere. And shared how he saw the handwriting on the wall in recent years when the number of his collaborative adventures with Oxford began to decline. He applauded those in the Math and Science world for supporting their hard-working commas that continue to deliver clear numerical values. Or took a moment to charge Oxford’s detractors as being haters, or progressive artsy folks, and apologized for being somewhat undecided. After a few nonessential comments from Parentheses, Period delivered the benediction and finalized the ceremony.

    Comma Splice, a local punk band, peppered the evening with many of its songs including its two major hits–Run On and On and Miss Independent, Independent.

    Considering the eclectic mixture of memorial-goers, the event remained a fitting and appropriate remembrance of Oxford Comma. Through his long and successful career, he made his mark on writers and editors everywhere, and he will live on in good literature, satire and humor writing.

    Signatures of the attendees: %$”:&,?;#.()–*!

  • Tracy says:

    Everyone who thought they were so clever in pointing out that the comma is missing in her bio obviously didn’t read the whole thing. Not so clever after all! It’s an AP post and the comma would be edited out! She clearly states she “sneaks” it in when she can. Insert eye roll here. Go little O!

  • Ann Council says:

    Thanks for your post…..have always used the Oxford comma…..and always will….it just seemed right….guess I had good teachers…. graduated high school in 1951 ……nursing school 1954… pioneer? Or antique?

  • William Laing says:

    Go with the sense, which sometimes has different requirements.
    Take the standard version of Robert Frost’s delightful poem of Stopping By Woods on a Winter Night”:

    …the woods are lovely, dark and deep

    with a recent (surely mistaken) edition:

    …the woods are lovely, dark, and deep

    In the first it is the darkness and depth of the woods that explains the loveliness, whereas in the second the woods are merely (a) lovely; (b) dark; and (c) deep.

    And a dogmatic adherence to a rule can lead to, …well:
    [Student receiving award]: “I would like to thank my parents, Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand.”

  • Kim says:

    Yes! The missing last comma irks me. Can we also return the double space after a period? 😏

  • ablestmage says:

    The court has not ruled on the necessity of the oxford comma in general usage, but perhaps as a precedent for the use of it in this particular context within legal documents.

    I’m an AP guy, and Associated Press style applies to writing which the Associated Press governs, and not anything else except that by which someone with authority decides the AP style will be the governing style (such as a newswriting class that the AP doesn’t directly instruct).

    The ruling isn’t a blow to AP style, because AP style doesn’t govern legal documents like this.

  • Oxford comma forever. This shouldn’t be a style issue. One pauses briefly before the “and” when reading a serial list because it sounds entirely wrong not to. Try it with anything. It warrants a comma.

  • Ben Katz says:

    This ruling makes me very glad I don’t do legal transcription anymore. I used to argue with my court reporter about the Oxford comma rules constantly, but she preferred AP style. I threw quite a few in there that she didn’t catch, though!

  • Kelley Paystrup says:

    I use the Oxford comma. A science teacher last year, who was in the anti-Oxford comma crowd, received a teasing from me after he posted a student sign about lab safety: Do not eat, drink or chew gum. He had to either acknowledge I was right about the sign needing a comma, or admit that by his own posted sign it was okay to drink or chew gum in the lab.

  • Jeffery says:

    Now if they can just get to the horrendous misuse of semicolons.

  • amanda says:

    I LOVE this article, as much as I love the Oxford comma. Raised in the US with an English teacher as my mother, the Oxford comma was the ONLY way to write a serial list (who would fathom another way?). However, I currently teach English as an Additional Language in Asia where they use the Cambridge curriculum (AP style). It makes me cringe at the ambiguity. This made my day, too.

  • JimmyZ says:

    While I fully believe in the use of the Oxford comma, and understand it’s importance, this judge missed the boat on this ruling. When they used “or” instead of “and” they clearly indicated that the item on either side of the word was an individual item.

    “And” could have been construed both ways. “Or” means one or the other.

  • Leighann says:

    First, you stated that the law intended to exclude ONLY packaging. Then, you stated that the law intended to exclude packaging AND distribution. This really confused me.

    I copied the following paragraphs to show you what I mean.

    “Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they only engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution.”

    “Had there been an Oxford comma, it would be clear the law intended to exclude “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two separate exempt activities.”

    Otherwise, this was an outstanding article! The Oxford comma rules. Please, correct me if I am wrong in correcting you!

  • Cynthia Olen says:

    I always use an Oxford comma. My profs at university would have beat me over the head with the OED otherwise. In fact, a sentence that doesn’t use one sometimes trips me up, forcing me to read it again for clarity.

  • Katharine says:

    I’d fire any publisher that removed my serial comma. I don’t have time to go over all their editing to find all the rest of the errors they might edit in.

  • Hurray! I almost always use the Oxford comma for all the reasons mentioned.

  • Mollie says:

    I’m in favour of it all the time. The writer may not realise when ambiguity would arise for the reader (the reader is always the side who perceives the ambiguity, since the writer always knows what he “meant” but doesn’t know how the reader will hear his words), so the onus is on the writer to dispel as much potential ambiguity as possible. And, like another commenter said, “it’s easier to use a consistent rule than to parse degrees of ambiguity”. That should be the defining argument, imo.

  • James says:

    “grammar nerds, Strunk & White and those who follow the infamous Chicago vs. AP style debate.”

    You are a monster…

  • Christine says:

    Good writing is painfully clear and precise, certainly the Oxford comma!

  • OK, OK, I’ll use it already!

  • Fred says:

    ‘“Who gives a $#%& about an Oxford comma?”
    grammar nerds, Strunk & White and those who follow the infamous Chicago vs. AP style debate.’

    In an article about the need for the Oxford comma (an argument I fully agree with), I notice that the very first list you wrote doesn’t include one! Shouldn’t there be a comma after “Shrunk & White”?

  • Ted R. says:

    Ironically, this article is an example of how not to use the term “only.”

    “Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they only engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution.”

    This sentence continued to confuse me, until I realized that this is not what Oakhurst Dairy would have argued. If the law exempted “only packing” (sic), meaning here that the law exempted packing for distribution but did not exempt distribution itself, how does Oakhurst Dairy win this case if its drivers “only engage in distribution?”

  • Oxford comma aside, this paragraph is confusing:

    “Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they only engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution.”

    If the dairy argued that “the spirit of the law intended to exclude only packing,” they were arguing that distribution was eligible for overtime.

    • Sheila says:

      This case is not an argument for the Oxford comma. Instead, this case highlights the fact that a comma can change the meaning of a sentence. In this case the comma is intentionally absent because the meaning of the rule is to allow overtime for driving but not for packing. The Dairy company didn’t want to pay the overtime so they pretended that the sentence was missing a comma.

      • Jeremy says:

        What Matthew’s pointing out is that the paragraph contradicts itself.

        “Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they only engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution.”

        Oakhurst Dairy didn’t argue that the spirit of the law intended to exclude only packing. They argued that it intended to exclude distribution, as a separate item from packing. The article should read more like:

        “Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because the spirit of the law intended to exclude distribution, separate from packing.

        However, the drivers argued the letter of the law said no such thing. Had there been an Oxford comma, it would be clear the law intended to exclude ‘packing for shipment’ and ‘distribution’ as two separate exempt activities.”

        • Sheila says:

          You are absolutely right. I wasted at least a minute on that sentence and finally realized it was either poorly written or the writer did not understand the subject matter. Then I accidentally replied to Matthew when I meant to comment directly on this article.
          My point is that if Gurnett intends to make a case for the Oxford comma s/he has failed. This is not a case of a missing series comma. The sentence means one thing with the comma and the opposite thing without it. The writers of the rule meant for there to be no comma, and meant for drivers to be entitled to overtime. Delivering a perishable product often entails unforeseen problems such as problems with drop-offs, traffic etc, so the drivers should be compensated for losing personal time. Context, like commas, is important.

          • Mikeski says:

            I think that the whole point of the case was the the Dairy did NOT want to pay the overtime to the drivers and was trying to use the agreement, as written, to prove that they did not have to.
            That fact that this is morally reprehensible is a given.
            When written, and I am sure checked by the company, it is likely that they intended it to encompass all aspects of its distribution and, as such, the drivers.
            It was just luck, and a quirk of law, that the Judge found the AP style did not convey that intent.
            In fact the law should enforce that overtime must be paid whenever an employee has to work more than their contracted hours.
            That is not Marxist, it is just plain fairness.
            If the employer does not want to pay overtime then they should employ more staff to cover the workload in normal hours.
            Having seen and heard journalists regularly massacring the English language I am surprised that ANYONE ever agreed that Associated Press should be allowed anywhere near creating rules for other people to follow!

  • Josh says:

    I’m confused…is Kelly a freelance blogger, writer, and editor or a freelance blogger, writer and editor?

  • T Counce says:

    My Business Correspondence Professor marked me off for including that extra comma, with a big red note at the top of the paper (along with my C-) that it was no longer used (this was in 1989). The Paper I wrote had a lot of grouping in it. I took my C- to my Advisor and asked him what was wrong with my paper? He said to come back and see him in the morning. I did. He told me he had read the paper overnight, that it was very well written, that I should consider being an attorney, and the only thing wrong with my paper was that I received a C-. He said he would take care of. The next day, in his class, (Business Law I) he gave me back my paper with the C- crossed out, the note crossed out, and a letter of apology attached to said paper. I thanked him for my A- and went back to my seat.

  • Robert says:

    while the article may be grammatically correct, it contains a legal misstatement. The dairy argued that the drivers were exempt from overtime because they were engaged in distribution, which they argued, was an exempted activity. The Court’s ruling, that without an Oxford comma only packing was exempted, is the argument the plaintiff’s made.

  • Haha. U.S. courts never have the final say. They answer to the executive, the legislative and we the people. No Oxford needed common here. The U.S. government is balanced. The people hold the final power. Needing an Oxford common means your sentences are too complex. Keep sentences short. Keep them simple. Thoughtful writing needs no Oxford comma. The AP Stylebook rocks. 🙂

  • Deborah Bedell says:

    The discussion of the Oxford comma is helpful and accurate. The description of the dairy’s legal argument is confusing and seems inaccurate. However, did no one notice the more serious grammatical error below the second graphic: “As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling…. .?” Messrs Strunk and White would be horrified.

  • JB says:

    I’m not a loyalist to either. However, as a writer, I prefer to not use the last comma. I guess I don’t get confused when I read things without the last comma either. I think the Oxford comma is unnecessary in most cases.

  • Jan says:

    Awesome, and I agree so much with “Chicago” and the Oxford comma that I plan to write a LinkedIn post on this one (and credit you and my sister, who found this).

    The next great debate: “more than” v. “over” for numbers!

  • Vader47000 says:

    Actually, AP Style isn’t opposed to an Oxford comma, it just finds it unnecessary in a simple list when “and” is enough to separate the final two entries. Or to remove ambiguity.

    So, in the cited case text, AP Style would likely stipulate the comma before “or” is needed.

    So really, this article is just spreading confusion about proper comma use.

    For instance, the cited example “I like cake, pizza and ice cream” is said to be ambiguous about whether “pizza and ice cream” are meant to be a combo. It isn’t. It’s a simple list, so the and is sufficient. To suggest the “pizza and ice cream” combo, it would need to be written “I like cake, and pizza and ice cream.” The extra and necessitates a proper Oxford comma to separate the clauses.

  • jolisa says:

    I agree with the following statements in the article. I find it very interesting about the “and” I believe that it is necessary. I was a little confused when reading the article but as I read further, I quickly understood the claim that the author is insisting.

  • Chris Conrad says:

    I’m a fan of the AP style myself, but I’ve recently been rewriting our company’s employee handbook. Given the potential litigious nature of employee/employer relations, this case has forced me into editing mode before we publish. Probably a good thing.

  • OPS3 says:

    My favorite Oxford comma story:
    The will read: I leave all my wordly goods and money to Alex, Bill and Mary.

    Alex sued for 50% of the estate. His lawyer argued the statement above decreed Bill and Mary to be one part, so the estate should be divided 50% to Alex, 25% to Bill, and 25% to Mary.

    The court agreed. If the will had been written “I leave all my wordly goods and money to Alex, Bill, and Mary”, each would have received 33.3% of the estate.

    For want of an Oxford comma, Alex received 16.7% more, and Bill and Mary each lost 8.375%.

    I love the Oxford comma.

  • Mark Matchen says:

    No, no and no!

    The author gives an idiotic example about snack foods. That sentence cannot be read the way she says it could be.

    Similarly, the legislation cannot be read as the judge says it can without introducing a grammatical error. People who speak English goodly are not put off by an absent Oxford comma. When it’s genuinely necessary, you include it.

  • Randy says:

    Oxford comma all the way! You never know what type of bachelors party you’ll end up at…

    “The strippers, Jim, and John have just arrived!” versus “The strippers, Jim and John have just arrived!”


  • Arthur Davis says:

    I believe you skipped the Oxford comma in your first paragraph. It’s that correct?

  • Doug Long says:

    Kelly really needs the Oxford comma herself; unless she only does simultaneous “editing and blogging.” Will she only edit blogs?
    “Kelly Gurnett runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits and is growing her own freelance writing, editing and blogging empire day by day. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services here.”

  • Ya'qub Ibn Yusuf says:

    In modern Hebrew, the practice is not to use the Oxford comma. Ever. It’s been influencing me away from using it in English. But a friend from Britain recently alerted me to the issue (I didn’t know it had a name), and I’m inclined now to use the Oxford comma in English.

  • James Rio says:

    It’s interesting that the author shows in her own second paragraph that the Oxford comma is not always necessary.

  • Ask yourself this: why wouldn’t you use the Oxford comma? To save time? Please.

  • T Pless says:

    Comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon; they come and go, they come and go-o-o-oh! 🦎,🦎, 🦎!

  • Kel says:

    Soooo….then shouldn’t the 2nd sentence of this article have a comma after “White?”

  • Ken says:

    Two spaces after a period. Period!

    • Fr. Errol Montgomery-Robertson says:

      Actually, two spaces after a period is not a grammatical rule. It is used for typography. In the old days of the typewriter, which uses a monospaced font, each character receives the same amount of horizontal white space. It is needed when using a typeface such as Courier; however, modern typefaces use kerning to reduce the amount of horizontal white space. Only monospaced typefaces require two spaces after a period.

      • Vaughn Hathaway says:

        My wife, as a typist, was taught always to include two spaces after a period, was once penalized on a job application test because she had never before taken a computer generated test. Apparently the default font did not compensate for her learning. However, the proctor recognized what was happening and adjusted her score accordingly.

  • Marco D. Nepomuceno says:

    I worked in the publishing industry when I was living in the United States. My employers included Federal Contractors, and so we had to adhere to Federal Standards. When it came to Style Manuals, we used only one: The GPO [Government Printing Office] Style Manual that included the Oxford Comma. It’s no wonder then that the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. In my case, I always use the Oxford Comma!

  • Allison says:

    Woo hoo! As a Vampire Weekend fan AND an Oxford comma proponent, this makes my day too! The Oxford comma is necessary, proper, and just plain RIGHT! Long live the Oxford comma!!!! ❤️

  • James Cook says:

    I feel vindicated. I’ve never made much fuss over it leaving debate to MFA academia, but now I have precedent to point to when the topic arises. Hoorah for the Serial Comma (because I don’t live in the U.K.) 😉

  • Joe says:

    Thing is, though, if you want to combing “storage or distribution,” then you need another conjunction before packing, as in “marketing, storing, or packing for storage or distrbution.” Only then is the ambiguity fully eliminated. As an editor, I favor the Oxford comma, but I have a greater problem with making the last conjunction in a series bear too much weight. To take another example: “Teri liked hiking, swimming and went to the mountains every year.” In this case, the one “and” is linking the two verbs but is being used as though it is linking elements in a series. You need another “and” to link hiking and swimming, and you wouldn’t use a comma before the second “and,” because it’s not really an Oxford comma.

  • Drew says:

    But…the first paragraph…

  • Sabra Woodworth says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve always favored the Oxford comma, but I’ve not had a name for it before. For sure I’m willing to use it selectively, given the near status quo of abandoning it altogether.

  • Joni says:

    Been a fan and user 30 years and would not change it for anything. It is clear, concise, and just good common sense!! Oxford! Oxford!

  • Linda Myrick says:

    I teach 4th grade and I love the Oxford comma debates, especially on social media, where examples of communication gone awry provide amusing examples for my students. In this case, hurray for the Oxford comma, but seriously, it’s sad that a punctuation rule was needed to ensure overtime for workers! I hope my union brothers and sisters will use this knowledge to negotiate fair pay in more places.

  • Joseph Kruse Prokop, the 2nd says:

    Your example sentence: “I like cake, pizza and ice cream”, could also indicate that you only like the two varieties of cake that are pizza flavored, and/or ice cream flavored..

  • Lynn Anne says:

    Do you rrealize that your Bio reads, “a freelance blogger, writer and editor”? I then assume that you only write when you also edit?

  • tim says:

    Why abbreviations such as “XD” and “bc” are used in this or any conversation involving writing completely escapes me.

  • Jack says:

    Not only is there no comma, but the nouns are parallel. That is to say, if “distribution” were meant as a separate activity in the series, “distributing” should be have used. As written, “shipment and distribution” are the twin purposes of “packing.”

  • Scott Noyes says:

    I am pro-Oxford comma, anti-deliberately misreading a law in order to decide court cases, and anti-overtime exceptions.

  • Robert Edwards says:

    The real question to be answered here is why those specific tasks and duties don’t warrant overtime pay if being performed past a 40 hour work week? How and why, aside from bribing corrupt politicians, do industry groups get exceptions to basic labor laws?

  • Jim Price says:

    If you’re going shopping and I ask you to get me an apple, a banana and a pear, I doubt you’ll have trouble interpreting my meaning, despite the lack of an Oxford comma.

    As for the article itself, I agree with using the Oxford when it assists in clarity, but the given example was just silly. If I like ice cream and pizza only together, I’ll write, “I like cake, and pizza and ice cream,” and there’ll be a slight pause (signified by the comma) after ‘cake’, along with a slight increase in tempo for ‘pizza and ice cream’. If, however, I take the article’s explanation as correct, then replacing single-item ‘ice cream and pizza’ with an actual single item — say, olives — would yield, “I like cake, olives,” which simply doesn’t work. The conjunction, you see, precedes the last single item. The article’s example made hash of this very simple fact. (Yes, there is an occasional practice of omitting terminal conjunctions in lists. It even has a name, but it isn’t what this discussion is about.)

    “I invited my cousin Bill, a lecher and a fool.” Here you have ambiguity; was the invitation extended to one person (Bill, who is both lecher and fool), or was it extended to three people (Bill, a lecher, and a fool)? In cases like this, the Oxford comma appears to be mandatory. However, this doesn’t make it mandatory in all cases. See the 3-fruits example above.

    Finally, as every linguist knows, language is inherently ambiguous, and no matter what we do, we will never escape this simple fact. We do what we can to minimize it, but like grass growing through pavement, it creeps in anyway. I say let’s not be overly prescriptive. Oxford when needed; none when not.

    Carry on.

    • Dr. Reality says:

      Correct. The Oxford comma proponents are the same people that want to regulate everyone and everything to death in the political sphere!

  • Matt says:

    “As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day.” Great, but how do you feel about dangling modifiers?

  • Dr. Reality says:

    Sorry, but the court did not rule that the Oxford comma was required. The court ruled that language was ambiguous and since the law was remedial in nature, the language should be broadly read to give the drivers overtime pay. By the way, every stylebook that allows omission of the Oxford comma includes a caveat, often forgotten: Once the sentence moves beyond a simple series, that comma might be necessary for clarity. Not difficult. When ambiguous, use Oxford comma, otherwise don’t.

  • Dr. Reality says:

    By the way, the problem with the Oxford comma is that it is superfluous when it is not needed to clarify meaning, and therefore violates a most basic rule of punctuation (a subset of grammar), to wit, that all superfluous punctuation should be avoided. Period.

  • Morgan says:

    Article written in support of Oxford comma; author omits it in the sentence listing groups of people who “care” about said comma. . .

  • Z says:

    Thanks for this! A minor grammatical point: “As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day” means the ruling is a diehard loyalist. I wouldn’t normally point it out but I figure as a diehard grammar loyalist you’d want to know 🙂

  • Kevin Conner says:

    You cannot construct a listing function with a full blown dependent clause structure at the end as displayed in the way the Judged ruled. “packing for shipment” is a dependent clause structure with it’s own conjugated verb separate from the previous listing functions. Even IF you put a comma before the “Or”, the fact is you have a conjugated verb modifying a clause structure of the sentence as it had progressed. It would STILL mean packing for distribution. The Judge is an uneducated simpleton to think the comma changes the conjugation, since the whole context had been changed. In order to fix the sentence, you would need to have distribution prior to the packing for shipment. So, not only do you have an idiot judge who goes on a comma rant, but you have a poorly written law.

  • Mike Richards says:

    Whilst interesting to see support for Oxford Comma, I feel that the more important matter here is the attempt to remove the rights of workers to be paid for their labours. If there is a right to overtime – which is deemed as fair I believe – then to say that any group cannot have overtime is unfair.
    It does not matter where the comma is in the sentence it does not change the fairness.
    Perhaps that was what the Judge was really trying to do?

  • lelando says:

    Did you realize that you are actually *missing* the Oxford Comma in the 2nd paragraph (after “Strunk & White”)? o_O

  • Kerry says:

    This is probably much too far down the comment thread to be read with anything approaching interest, but I’d like to point out that in the first 40-odd comments—made by self-proclaimed grammar fanatics, no less—there is a shocking amount of (what I am charitably assuming are) typos.
    Perhaps we should focus on proof-reading before anyone gets uppity about commas. An otherwise intelligent and lucid point is often weakened by something as simple as a typing error. Does no-one re-read their posts before hitting send, anymore?


    For the record, I’m in the camp that is FOR the serial (Oxford) comma. I’m there alongside the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

  • Marge says:

    All of the contributers to this thread should watch Victor Borge’s hilarious bit on “PUNCTUATION”. You may be able to find it on YouTube or ITunes.

  • Nick Jones says:

    You’re writing about punctuation and you use a dangling paritciple? “As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day.” I suppose the ruling could be thought of as an Oxford comma loyalist, but probably not a diehard one. Your sentence gave me the same kind of whiplash I get from so much news reporting these days.

  • Kathy Walston says:

    When I was in High School, back in the 1970’s, my English teacher was a passionate Anglophile. The Oxford comma was mandatory in any class she taught. I still use it faithfully, when appropriate. I still wouldn’t dare do otherwise.

  • Elizabeth S. says:

    I use it only when necessary. A simple list doesn’t need it: “I like pears, oranges and apples.”
    If I have a sentence that I know could be misunderstood, I’ll use it: ” For lunch, I like to have crackers, apples, peanut butter, and jelly.” (PB&J not together.)

  • Jen says:

    Came across this for fluky reasons and so glad I did! I never heard of the term “oxford comma” before today…but I’ve been a committed user of it essentially all my writing life. Somewhere along the way I somehow came to the understanding that this was US (oxford comma) vs. British usage (no oxford comma). Never knew it was more complicated than that. I’m a firm believer in the use of that final comma both because of the potential for exactly the type of ambiguity noted above, and because I associate the comma with a breath/beat/pause in the series of items, a marker of the separation between them. Which is quite touch-feely rather than strictly rule-based. So it was really eye-opening to read about the style guide debates over this! Thanks for the article.

  • Jack Courtney says:

    Red, white and blue.

    Legalese is hardly the bastion of great writing and should not be used as a benchmark in this context. It is also responsible for influencing millions of misguided writers (including those w/ post-graduate degrees) who somehow developed the idea that they should write like verbose attorneys.

    I only use Oxford Commas to prevent ambiguity — otherwise, they’re just clutter … like the semicolons in the article’s bulleted list.

    I stand behind a considerable body of work: 20 yrs of professional writing as a PR consultant and now the editor of three blogs in financial services.

    Notwithstanding the expected rebuttals from those in opposition; whereas, having more important things to do; whereas, “frankly, I don’t give a damn.”

  • Funny Man says:

    I thought Kelly was “growing her own freelance writing, editing, and blogging empire day by day.”

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