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Did you write what you meant? The power of a comma.

Services for Real Estate Pros with Marte Cliff Copywriting

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.”commas

Most of the time it doesn’t matter at all, but then there are those times when it does.

Dick Greenberg very thoughtfully sent me a link to an article outlining a $10,000,000 lawsuit whose outcome rested on one little comma - or rather, on its absence.

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.

decide- yes or noIf 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


Sally K. & David L. Hanson
EXP Realty 414-525-0563 - Brookfield, WI
WI Real Estate Agents - Luxury - Divorce

We always say..."If there was one legal opinion, there would be one lawyer." Many people would view that as a good thing....but that isn't the way the world or apparently punctuation works....

Mar 18, 2017 02:12 PM
Marte Cliff

Had the Main lawmakers included that one little comma, it would have saved those employers millions of dollars - not to mention years of litigation and legal fees.

Someone should have looked at it and thought "This could be misunderstood."

Mar 18, 2017 02:25 PM
Beth and Richard Witt
New York, NY
The best Retired Brokers !!!!

OMG... I pray we never get sued beccause I am not a comma pro... 

Mar 18, 2017 02:14 PM
Marte Cliff

Richard and Beth Witt - as long as you read what you write, pause at your commas, and don't pause where they don't exist, you'll be fine.

Mar 18, 2017 02:26 PM
Jeff Dowler, CRS
eXp Realty of California, Inc. - Carlsbad, CA
The Southern California Relocation Dude

Hi Marte

Leave it to you to provide more important education about improving the clarify of our writing. I am reasonably familiar with commas, but had not heard this particular term. Use of the Oxford comma, or not, certainly can change the meaning and intent of what is written, and with some dire consequences in some cases. 


Mar 18, 2017 02:49 PM
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
Your real estate writer

Jeff Dowler It was a client who introduced me to it a few years ago. She said she either did or didn't want me to use it - I now forget which - and I had to go look it up to see what she meant.

In the case of this lawsuit, the consequences are indeed dire. This $10 million affects only one employer - and I would think the possibility exists that with this court decision, other employers could be similarly affected.

Mar 18, 2017 03:07 PM
Harry F. D'Elia III
WEDO Real Estate and Beyond, LLC - Phoenix, AZ
Investor , Mentor, GRI, Radio, CIPS, REOs, ABR

I have to agree we all need better writing skills when publishing blog posts to the public to read

Mar 18, 2017 03:09 PM
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
Your real estate writer

Harry F. D'Elia Those commas might be even more important when writing purchase and sale contracts - or counter offers. If there's a way to twist a meaning, there's a lawyer who'll find it.

Mar 18, 2017 03:25 PM
Dorie Dillard Austin TX
Coldwell Banker Realty ~ 512.750.6899 - Austin, TX
NW Austin ~ Canyon Creek and Spicewood/Balcones

Good evening Marte Cliff ,

How interesting! Very interesting post on commas and I had not heard that term but always noticed that extra comma sometimes and thought it shouldn't be there! Learn something today..thank you! 

Mar 18, 2017 03:39 PM
Marte Cliff

Dorie Dillard Whether it should or shouldn't be there depends on your preference - and whether it alters the meaning.

If you said "I credit my parents, Pope Paul and Beyonce," it might come out meaning something strange.

Mar 18, 2017 06:09 PM
Myrl Jeffcoat
Sacramento, CA
Greater Sacramento Realtor - Retired

I frequently use commas in the way you write about here, but I had never realized that form of punctuation had a special name (Oxford comma).  I learned something new today!

Mar 18, 2017 05:53 PM
Marte Cliff

Myrl Jeffcoat I don't guess it matters whether we know it's name... only whether we know when it is important to use it.

Mar 18, 2017 06:10 PM
Jane Peters
Home Jane Realty - Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles real estate concierge services

Wow, that is amazing. I can imagine the hours of debate that went into analyzing the meaning of a sentence with and without the comma. It is obvious what was meant, but I am definitely going to pay attention to my comma use from now on. 

Mar 18, 2017 07:37 PM
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
Your real estate writer

Jane Peters I can't think of any examples at the moment, but I expect it could be critical in some purchase and sale agreements.

If you followed the links regarding the 2nd Amendment - I found it interesting that in those days, people were pretty casual about where they placed the commas. It also said something along the lines that while one person did the writing, a "scrivner" was apt to do the copying into the documents that were signed - and some of those scriverners prided themselves on the liberal use of commas.

Our Founding Fathers knew what they meant - but sometimes the actual wording left it up to interpretation.

Mar 18, 2017 08:36 PM
Diana White-Pettis
Bennett Realty Solutions - Upper Marlboro, MD
GRI, CDPE, CNE, WHC Upper Marlboro Homes for Sale

This is amazing information.  Thanks for keeping us enlightened so we can pay close attention to our comma use in the future.

Mar 19, 2017 09:41 AM
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
Your real estate writer

Diana White-Pettis - Litigation attorneys must thrive on this kind of confusion.

Mar 19, 2017 10:51 AM
Paul S. Henderson, REALTOR®, CRS
Fathom Realty Washington LLC - Tacoma, WA
South Puget Sound Washington Agent/Broker!

I seem to have a problem between the comma and the semicolon Marte Cliff 

Mar 19, 2017 11:22 AM
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
Your real estate writer

Paul S. Henderson, REALTOR®, Broker, Tacoma Washington - Don't let that one worry you too much. For one thing, most people won't notice if you get it wrong, and for another there's only one instance in which you really must use a semicolon to keep from confusing your readers.

I wrote about it in this 2015 post: http://activerain.com/blogsview/4734084/when--why--and-how-to-use-semicolons

Mar 19, 2017 12:04 PM
Dick Greenberg
New Paradigm Partners LLC - Fort Collins, CO
Northern Colorado Residential Real Estate

Hi Marte - That NYT story was really interesting, and I knew it would be right up your alley. Clarity checks are always a good idea.

Mar 19, 2017 01:17 PM
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
Your real estate writer

Yes Dick Greenberg - it was right up my alley. It's scary to think such a small thing can have a ten million dollar impact.

Mar 19, 2017 03:10 PM
Kathy Streib
Cypress, TX
Home Stager/Redesign

Marte- interesting because I have had a habit of either over-using commas or not using them enough.  Just this week on Mike & Mike, Mike Greenberg, who graduated from Northwestern, mentioned in reference to a topic they were discussing that as a journalist, he needed to be aware of his use of commas. Wow, that was a long and convoluted sentence...sorry..  

Mar 24, 2017 02:15 PM
Marte Cliff
Marte Cliff Copywriting - Priest River, ID
Your real estate writer

Kathy Streib Thanks for the giggle. Long and convoluted doesn't bother me at all, except when it's my sister-in-law saying "...and like I said..."

Mar 24, 2017 02:38 PM