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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384 comments

  • 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!

        • Pat says:

          It isn’t just good grammar; it’s the law!

          • Emily says:

            As a contract attorney I can tell you that, as this case points out, the Oxford comma has always been my friend. It’s a nightmare when I can’t give clients a confident answer on a contract interpretation. They want it to say what they think it says- and of course, they may be correct. But then again, they may not. Contracts are to clarify a relationship. So be clear.

          • Al says:

            How interesting to hear a contract attorney favouring (yes, with an ou, since I’m English) the use of punctuation when the bulk of any legal document I’ve ever seen in my 68 years of life have always specifically avoided the use of most any punctuation whatsoever!

        • Joel says:

          Peobably? A new word?

        • M. Havrilla says:

          You need a semicolon before the word “but” and a comma after “but.”

          • Jeffrey Myers says:

            I am guilty of that often, but I will try to be more conscientious in the future. Oh, rats, there I go again.

          • Eddie Barnes says:

            That is not even a little bit true. You’re thinking of “however.”

          • June Hankins says:

            Nope. Don’t put a comma after “but.”

          • Jmwmson says:

            I have over-used the semi-colon, because of this issue.

          • T. says:

            You use a semicolon before and a comma after words like “however” and “therefore”; “but” just needs a comma before it, never after. Ex. I like Pepsi, but I don’t like Coke. I like Pepsi; however, I don’t like Coke.

          • Sherry Kennedy says:

            No semicolon is needed before but, nor a comma after. But is a coordinating conjunction and, therefore, needs a comma before but not after when it joins two complete sentences into one.

          • Maggi J. says:

            No.

          • Dan says:

            “but” just needs a comma before it, never after

            Never after, but, for avoidance of doubt, subordinate clause commas aren’t counted.

        • Karyn Walsh says:

          I quite agree…it irritates me when that last Oxford comma fails to be used…like fingernails across a blackboard! If it was good enough for the writers of the Declaration of Independence, then it should be good enough for the rest of us…”Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”!

          • Roberta Goodin says:

            That’s a solid point! If it’s good enough for the Declaration of Independence, it’s good for me too!

          • Jen S says:

            I love the irony in this – standing up for the use of an Oxford comma in the Declaration of Independence. We’ll boycott the tea, but give us those British commas!

          • Bob says:

            If the comma before the “and” had been ommitted, it may have taken the British many months to communicate with the colonists about what they meant. “Do Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness go together? A conjunction before liberty is missing, but those nabobs in the colonies don’t know how to write.
            Maybe we can give them a little happiness without the liberty.” The war may have been delayed a year while the grammar was debated.

          • Kevin H says:

            One would need another coordinating conjunction before Liberty to assert that Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are a single grouped concept separate from Life.

            The author of this blog makes the same error, the crux of her argument, in her post.

          • Bob says:

            It’s a joke, and that’s the point of the joke. Without the serial comma, I was speculating how the British might have been confused and thought that the colonists didn’t know how to write. Look how confusing the Second Amendment to the Constitution is.

          • Tamara Gamble says:

            The rule of simplicity should settle these semi- colon issues. But I agree with those who use the final Roman comma. Clarity, simplicity.

        • Chuck says:

          Excessive comma usage is a writing disease. Here is your reply with all but 1 comma removed. I don’t think anyone would have any trouble understanding it. A comma after “misunderstood” would also be better than parentheses.

          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 probably rare instance you would not have to pay a large sum of money if your lack of a comma did cause a major ruction!

          • S says:

            Chuck, your version is cumbersome and requires the reader to slow down just to figure out the intent. The original text, with commas intact, reads in the writer’s voice and cadence, providing clarity and facilitating speedy reading.

          • Sam says:

            Wow, that was hard to read, even for me. And I am not even close to what one might call a “grammar perfectionist”.

          • Crispin Miller says:

            What you say is beside the point. That text didn’t have an Oxford comma in it to begin with. I agree with the other responders who’ve found your version cumbersome, though.

            When I write I often charge along in a stream of consciousness without very many commas. But when I check what I’ve said, I often decide it’ll be clearer if I add a few.

          • Ben says:

            I am not a grammar purist, but I agree with Crispin.

        • Laurie C. says:

          Having been taught by a former magazine editor and edited newsletters, stories, school papers, and a myriad of other publications over the years, I enjoy proofreading other people’s work.

          That being said, I noticed Ms. Erdmann’s first sentence needs additional punctuation. While I am not, nor do I EVER pretend to be perfect, the Oxford comma, (especially in contract and legal documents,) is VITALLY important!

          I read the clause from the ruling and immediately saw the issue. The judge is 100% correct to have ruled the way they did. It saddens me that we’ve turned away from important punctuation, and our young adults often have no idea they’re writing incorrect contracts and documents. Given the contract writer’s erroneous error, it makes me wonder if an intern or young attorney initially wrote this contract aspect without realizing their mistake.

          In my opinion, it’s past time to teach our young adults and younger generations how to properly punctuate again.

          Ms. Erdmann, your first sentence reads: “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.”

          If I were editing this, I would recommend adding a comma before ‘per se’ because the phrase itself needs to be set apart; I would add a comma after the word comma at the end, (before ‘as most…’ because the last phrase needs to be set apart,) and I would eliminate the last word ‘to’, (citing Occam’s razor.)

          Adding commas at appropriate places cleans things up in such a way as to make it easier to understand, and often eliminates misinterpretation. There are standards for a reason; let’s consider doing our part to help raise stronger literary authors!

          • Terry says:

            Sorry, Laurie, but I can’t resist this!

            “a myriad of other publications” — the ‘of’ is redundant; a ‘myriad’ is an exact number (ten thousand) so needs no ‘of’; we don’t say “I spent sixty of dollars.”

            “The judge is 100% correct to have ruled the way they did.” ‘He,’ I think.

            “…erroneous error” Is there any other type, or is this an ‘alternative fact’?

            ” a young attorney initially wrote this contract aspect without realizing their mistake.” ‘His or her’ — although I admit that’s a tad pedantic.

            “…to properly punctuate…” Split infinitive.

            As you might gather, I also like proof-reading other writers’ efforts!

          • Bob says:

            Sorry, Terry, but I can’t resist this.

            The singular “they” or “their” is now acceptable:
            Each student should bring their book to class.

            Split infinitives are also acceptable and often sound better. Not splitting the infinitive was a bogus rule.

            It seems like you are old school when it comes to grammar.

          • Terry says:

            Hi Bob,

            I agree with you about the singular ‘their’ — common usage where I come from. As I said, I was being pedantic.

            Not the split infinitive, though. It is always at best inelegant and at worst downright hideous. It’s certainly not acceptable in the circles I move in. What makes you think it’s bogus?

            I am, though, as you suggest, grammatically an antique.

          • Bob says:

            “But there’s no real justification for their objection [to split infinitives], which is based on comparisons with the structure of Latin. People have been splitting infinitives for centuries, especially in spoken English, and avoiding a split infinitive can sound clumsy. It can also change the emphasis of what’s being said.”

            Source:
            https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/grammar/split-infinitives

            Also:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split_infinitive

          • Kevin H says:

            While I am not, nor do I EVER pretend to be perfect, the Oxford comma, (especially in contract and legal documents,) is VITALLY important!

            That was terribly punctuated. And the Oxford comma is rarely vital. It’s usually rendundant, as a coordinating conjunction is probably already doing the job perfectly fine on its own.

        • Bob says:

          Readability studies say avoid commas—including Oxford commas—except where needed for clarity. The legal example is really a problem with a ridiculously long run-on sentence, plus a parallel construction flaw. The parallel construction error creates the real problem. The parallel construction reads “…marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…” This clearly makes both shipment or distribution part of packing—comma or no comma. Using parallel structure makes it read “…marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distributing of…” The sentence is still run-on and poorly written. But correcting the parallel construction flaw solves the problem for management. While the judge got the ruling right, he got it right for the wrong reason.

        • Danielle says:

          A lot of unnecessary verbiage in this reply. Was this to implement the Oxford comma? LOL

        • Mark M. says:

          You’re overdoing it with the commas: not all prepositional phrases need a separation via comma and to do so makes your prose choppy.

    • 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.”

    • TJ Jelin says:

      If a sentence needs an Oxford comma to make itself clear, then the writer should find another way to resolve ambiguity. The extra comma, probably does not completely resolve it.

      In every example, where an Oxford comma is recommended, any lack of clarity could have been more better resolved in some other way.

      As a lawyer, I always re-read a sentence and ask myself “could this be misunderstood?”

      There is a somewhat famous example of the missing Oxford comma. It is from the lawsuit, Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy. Here’s the gist of it (and this is an example of my point, that if you see ambiguity, the use of the Oxford comma is not the solution

      Quoting from an article, discussing this case:

      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.

      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?
      If lawmakers had used a serial comma, it would have been clear that distribution was an overtime-exempt activity on its own.

      My comment:
      First, there is a rule of legal interpretation that we interpret language so that it makes sense. Depriving a worker of overtime pay for overtime, that is contrary to the purpose of our labor laws. So exemptions to overtime are naturally limited. The presumption is that when a worker works beyond regular hours, he or she gets paid overtime. Any exemptions to that are limited and specific. If employers could exempt everyone in the distribution chain from overtime, that would be a ridiculous result. It would be over broad, and would just be an excuse for employers to avoid overtime pay.

      Note also, that all the other exempted activities were listed as gerunds, words ending with “-ing”: Canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing. The word “distribution,” was therefore not intended to be one of the items in the list.

      People who like the oxford comma say that the ambiguity could have been resolved by using it, making the sentence read “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” That would have clarified it in favor of including in the exemption all jobs in distribution. Yes, it would have clarified it; it would caused it to mean the wrong thing. What if the legislature intended not to include all distribution but only “packing for distribution”.

      The ambiguity should have been solved by simply saying “packing for shipment, or packing for distribution of:”

      If the legislature had intended to exempt all of distribution, they could have solved the problem better by putting distribution in the middle of the list, not at the end. In any case, the Oxford comma is not a solution.

      Putting in the Oxford comma would have made it look like distribution was an exempt activity in itself. But was that what the legislature intended? Of course not. So the use of the Oxford comma does not solve the problem. It makes it worse. The legislature wanted to say that distribution on its own is NOT an exempt activity. The only except activity in the distribution chain is packing for distribution.

      The Oxford comma is not a solution.

      Another thing I have against it is that it is part of that whole concept that rules of grammar are a way to exhibit formal education. Bullshit (if you don’t mind street language). Language should serve communication, not snobbery.

      • Stephen Pierce says:

        Actually the comma is not the issue. In order for the judge’s ruling to be accurate, you would have to find another conjunction in the series. And there is not one. That said, a better written sentence would have been preferable.

        • Josiah Fisk says:

          Yes! Absolutely correct! This is the governing point, not the presence or absence of a comma (although I agree with the commenters who say that you should never let pass any construction that allows any significant amount of meaning to depend on something as small as a comma). Totally unbelievable that this did not come up in the court case or in the comments until now. Next time you are in Salem, MA, let me know and I will buy you a beer.

      • Terry says:

        I agree. If you take out the last (unnecessary) comma and put the word ‘and’ before ‘packing’, all ambiguity disappears. I don’t even think that this qualifies as an Oxford comma under the meaning of the act.

      • Chris says:

        Your post is a grammaticist’s nightmare. I’m astounded that you’re an attorney.

      • M. Christenson says:

        Obvious you’re a lawyer with the extreme over use of language.

        “More better?”

        The Oxford comma is the easiest and clearest way to keep it simple. Constantly re-wording sentences just to avoid said comma, is foolish and redundant.

        Finally, I also disagree with your presumption that the legislative body who produced this law intended distribution to not be an exclusion. The obvious intent is to prevent the need for overtime wages from interrupting the flow of perishable goods. This would include distribution.

      • Mark M. says:

        You use WAAAAAAAY too many commas! Don’t overdo it. Use them as you would pause in normal speech.

    • David Steinhoff says:

      This was a bad decision. Notice that the example given says: “I like cake, pizza, and ice cream.” The “and” designates that ice cream is the last item on the list, with or without the immediate preceding comma.

      If you wanted to link pizza and ice cream together, for clarity you should write: “I like cake, and pizza and ice cream.”

      • Tony dell says:

        I like cake, ham and eggs.
        I like cake, ham, and eggs.

        • David Steinhoff says:

          Do you like ham with your eggs? If so, you should write: I like cake and ham and eggs. The first “and” designates what follows as companion objects, but it would be better to write: I like cake, and eggs with ham to avoid any ambiguity. But there was no ambiguity in the original court test case, either.

      • Liz Walker says:

        Well, if that example doesn’t work for you, you should google “strippers Stalin Hitler” in an image search- if you haven’t caught that meme already, that is.

        • Kevin H says:

          And here’s yet another example of blindly following a rule without thought or care about it’s true usefulness.

          Make strippers singular and use your Oxford comma: “We invited the stripper, Hitler, and Stalin.”

          Your Oxford comma just made Hitler a stripper, when “We invited the stripper, Hitler and Stalin” is actually more clear.

          It’s simply false that the Oxford comma always adds clarity. Coordinating conjunctions already serve a purpose, making Oxford commas redundant by default. They should therefore only be used to enhance clarity if it’s not already clear otherwise.

          • Kevin H says:

            (Ugh, autocorrect plus lack of an edit feauture is annoying! “*its* true usefulness”!)

          • Andy says:

            @Kevin H. – Isn’t the Oxford comma interchangeable with the serial comma? If so, your Hitler example is moot because the comma in question is not being used as part of a series but instead to add specificity.

          • Kevin H says:

            Yes, Oxford and serial are interchangeable. I’ve always used the latter so I unintentionally switch.

            Otherwise I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at.

            Oxford zealots often refer to the phrase and image “We invited the strippers, Hitler and Stalin,” suggesting an Oxford comma is necessary because otherwise the sentence suggests that Hitler and Stalin are the renaming (appositive) of the strippers: “We invited the {strippers, Hitler and Stalin}.” Therefore you need an Oxford comma, “We invited the {strippers}, {Hitler}, and {Stalin},” to make it clear that you’re listing three items. This is their end-all, be-all proof that Oxford commas are absolutely necessary for clarity in all cases, end of argument.

            However, making strippers singular produces the opposite result and destroys the argument. “We invited the stripper, Hitler, and Stalin,” suggests that Hitler is the renaming (appositive) of the stripper: “We invited {the stripper, Hitler,} and {Stalin}.” (Note: This is true because the rules of appositives require that nonessential phrases are offset by commas. There’s only one stripper, Hitler, so his name isn’t essential, as opposed to the stripper Jane and the stripper June, whose names are essential to identification and distinction and therefore not offset by commas.) The solution to the confusion is in fact to REMOVE the Oxford comma: “We invited {the stripper}, {Hitler} and {Stalin}” to clarify three listed items.

          • Andy says:

            @Kevin H. – My point is that in the example you cite using Hitler as an appositive, we are no longer even analyzing a series and its attendant commas—we are discussing an appositive and the commas used to offset it.

          • Kevin H says:

            I’m not sure how you arrived at that conclusion. We are most certainly comparing the fact that an Oxford-punctuated series has identical comma usage as a phrase with a nonessential appositive, and therefore the sentences are indistinguishable and confusing, with the removal of an Oxford comma offering clarity to meaning.

            One who adheres to the rules of Oxford commas — or has any basic knowledge of these historical figures — would tell you that “the stripper, Hitler, and Stalin” are three distinct characters listed in a series. I hope we can agree that Hitler was not a stripper, and contextually we understand the meaning.

            However, it remains true that the exact same punctuation is used for nonessential appositive phrases, making the sentence unclear if you had no prior knowledge of the characters.

            “I’d like to thank my wife, Lisa, and Brandon,” has the same problem, but you don’t have the benefit of context to be certain what I mean. I can only have one wife, so using her name would be nonessential and offset by commas, therefore this would mean two people: “{my wife, Lisa,} and {Brandon}.” But if my wife’s name is Linda, then this is three people: “{my wife}, {Lisa} and {Brandon}.” Without additional information, it’s absolutely not possible to distinguish between an Oxford-punctuated list and a phrase with a nonessential appositive in this case. Eliminating the Oxford comma would offer a solution. This cannot be dismissed or disregarded.

          • Jordy W says:

            Kevin, the only way your argument works in this case is when you change the plural “strippers” to the singular “stripper.” Yes, your argument works for the example of your wife, Lisa, and Brandon. However, in the meme example, there are multiple strippers being invited. How many exactly, we don’t know. We do know there is more than one. You can’t simply take away the plural to make it more clear, because that completely changes it. When your buddy asks for strippers at his bachelor party and you only bring one, he might strip you of your best man title.

          • Kevin H says:

            The point of the example isn’t to reduce it to the singular to make the existing sentence more clear. The point of the example is to provide a new, separate example using the same characters to show that the argument “Oxford commas are safe and necessary because they always add clarity” is a wholly false assertion. The point of the meme is to provide an argument-ending example that Oxford commas should be the default, and how it’s thoughtlessly deployed when posted over and over again.

            My argument is the opposite, that Oxford commas by definition are redundant because the appear directly adjacent to coordinating conjunctions that already serve the function of informing the reader that they’re about to read the last item on a list. They should therefore only be used to add clarity — but rephrasing is typically a better choice than the comma if your writing is otherwise unclear, further rendering the Oxford comma to relative uselessness.

          • Chris says:

            Your allegedly clearer example objectively reads that you have only invited the stripper and are addressing Hitler and Stalin, not that you have invited three people.

          • Kevin H says:

            I suppose if someone with no business writing for the consumption of others wants to phrase in the most unnatural, awkward and unlikely way to trip up 95% of readers 100% of the time, you could make the argument that it says what you assert it says.

            “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” also objectively reads that I’m telling JFK that we invited the strippers and Stalin, so your point here is moot.

          • Michael M. says:

            Kevin, your alternative example still leaves open the possibility that the stripper’s name is “Hitler and Stalin.” To truly avoid ambiguity or awkward reading, one should simply rearrange the order. Thus, “… invite Hitler, Stalin, and the stripper.” The job of the writer is clarity, and I do not see how simply removing the Oxford comma in a series of items would ever be the best of all approaches to achieving clarity. Perhaps you can come up with a better example to make your case.

          • Kevin H says:

            These counterarguments are just getting ridiculous. Clarity is the first priority, but anticipating every pedantic, crackpot reader’s cockamamie thinking isn’t reasonable. Never once have I been in a situation in which a friend introduced me to “Amber and Ashley,” and I’ve thought, “OK so where’s Ashley?” and had to be corrected that oh, oh no, no, no, I misunderstand, the name of this single human I’m meeting is “Amber and Ashley.” Give me a break.

            The point of the example I gave is direct response to an Oxford comma meme that’s been spread around for years; just do a Google image search for strippers JFK Stalin and you’ll find it. The point of that meme is that Oxford commas are important and necessary and always add clarity. My example uses those same characters — and phrasing — to show that’s not true.

    • Heather Hightower says:

      “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.”

      Isn’t there supposed to be a comma after Strunk & White?

    • JD says:

      The AP Stylebook says the same thing as the court ruling: “As with all punctuation, clarity is the biggest rule. If a comma does not help make clear what is being said, it should not be there. If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma.” So, no “in your face” to our dear AP.

  • 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
    epiclesisconsulting.com

    • 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:
    http://tighterwriter.com/2015/09/

  • 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:

        Yep.

      • 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:

        Touché!

      • 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:

        Michael,

        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:

      Robert,

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

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

      • Mikeski says:

        Robert:
        “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.

      • Bob says:

        The Oxford semicolon?

        • Kevin H says:

          It’s not actually interesting, nor does it bolster the need for Oxford commas.

          Lists with semicolons are typically complex and include multiple phrases with “and,” so the semicolon always makes the groupings within a list more clear.

          That’s not true with Oxford commas, where appositive phrases and nonessential clauses also have their own comma rules.

          “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” is the go-to solution, but it doesn’t work with only one stripper: “We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.” Your Oxford comma just make JFK a stripper, and that sentence would be more clear if you didn’t use it. Oxford commas don’t always add clarity as the zealots suggest.

          • Stephanie says:

            Yes! It’s the reader’s error to assume that someone would separate two “items” in a list by only a comma.
            I like rice, beans and tortillas.
            Obviously “beans and tortillas” is not one entity (although they are sometimes served together). And even if one assumed beans-and-rice was a singular item, why would the writer not have written
            ‘I like rice and beans and tortillas.’
            Or ‘I like rice and beans, and tortillas.’

            Maybe an oversimplified example, but just two items are never written separated by only a comma.

          • Donna H. says:

            Ah, but without it, you are addressing JFK and Stalin to let them know that you have invited the stripper.

          • Kevin H says:

            Then with it, you’re telling JFK you invited a stripper and Stalin.

            Why must everyone insist on not only being ridiculous but not follow through on the thinking of their own “gotcha” circumstances.

    • Merry Maisel says:

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

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