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

  • 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.

    • Dan says:

      I don’t use the Oxford comma, but I value clarity in writing.

      Confusions and distortions in language precipitate much misery. It is heartening to see comments from people who care about writing well.

  • 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…”

      • Dan says:

        The error wasn’t absence of the comma. It was use of a phrase as the penultimate item followed by item that could be interpreted as part of the phrase. There is no ambiguity here:

        ….storing, distribution or packing for shipment of:

        Which suggests that Oxford comma assists in giving clarity to badly constructed writing.

        • Bob says:

          I think the list is in somewhat chronological order, so packing comes before distributing. Listing the activities and products could have been done simply as: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing, shipping or distributing of agricultural produce, meat product, fish product and perishable foods.” Or make a bullet list of all of the items, which was done for the products because “meat and fish product” was written as a single item before the last item. I guess the writers of the law used semicolons to separate the products thinking that would make it clearer.

          A bigger problem is often the choice of words, especially in international communication. Should shipping be included in the list because it is different from distributing? (Excuse me, sir, I do distributing. The shipping clerks do the shipping.) Do “perishable foods” include beverages? There are court cases that are decided on the meaning of one word.

          There is a story about the international misunderstanding of one word costing a company millions of dollars. Globish (www.globish.com) was created using only 1500 English words to try to minimize this kind of global misunderstanding caused by vocabulary or grammar.

          My recent example was in a Spanish speaking country. I had to see a dentist about a broken tooth and got an appointment for a “consultation.” Turns out consultation meant an operation to remove my tooth. Good thing the consultation was only for a tooth.

  • 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:

      commas

    • 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?

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