Have you ever heard of the Oxford Comma? I don’t think I had, until just a few years ago. Before that I used it without knowing its name.
Also known as the serial comma, it is the comma that goes before “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things. For instance, I would use it in a sentence such as “I wish you health, wealth, and happiness.”
Interestingly, the use or non-use of the Oxford comma is a subject of much debate and heated arguments.
The Associated Press Stylebook does not use it. The Chicago Manual of Style does. Publications such as the New York Times do not use it “unless it is required for clarity.” For instance, they would likely insert the comma after “Jones” in a sentence such as “I wish to thank my parents, Bishop Jones and Sister Ann Marie.”
Most of the time it doesn’t matter at all, but then there are those times when it does.
It seems that Maine State law requires employers to pay employees time and a half for all hours worked over 40 per week – with the exception of those employees who are engaged in:
“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.”
In 2014, three truckers filed a class action lawsuit against their employer, seeking overtime pay for the previous 4+ years, during which they had each racked up approximately 12 hours of overtime per week, for which they were paid only straight time. Half pay for 12 hours would be 6 hours – times 50 weeks, times 4+ years. That’s more than 1,200 hours’ worth of pay for each of them. And approximately 75 employees are represented by the class action.
This week the court of appeals ruled in favor of the truckers. Had the lawmakers included the Oxford Comma and written “packing for shipment, or distribution” the intent would have been clear and there would have been no lawsuit. As its written, it could mean only packing, and not distribution – and that is how the court ruled.
Note that those who drafted that law were following guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which specifically instructs lawmakers not to use the Oxford comma.
If you’re interested in the many ways that a simple comma can affect our lives and our laws, do follow the link to the article, then follow the other links.
You’ll learn about other lawsuits, and you’ll learn why some lawmakers feel that the Second Amendment might not give ordinary citizens the right to keep and bear arms.
Since I favor clarity in writing, I’ll keep right on saying yes to the Oxford comma unless a client instructs me not to.
My advice to you: If you're tempted not to use the Oxford Comma, carefully read your sentence to make sure your meaning is clear without it.
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net