Comma or No Comma? – The 10 Million Dollar Question

There are two kinds of people in this world: those that use the Oxford Comma and the insufferable “English is a flexible language…” crowd – @IAmOxfordComma

The Oxford, or serial comma, is an optional comma that comes before the final ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list of three or more items. For instance, in the sentence “I would like to thank my parents, George Bush, and Oprah Winfrey”, the final comma disambiguates the three parts of the list as being distinct; in the case where the comma is not used, there is an ambiguity as to whether these are three distinct entities or whether the first part serves as a description of the remaining two entities – which would mean that I was born under a lucky star to be the child of two very distinguished personalities (I ain’t complaining!).


The Oxford Comma even has its own Twitter Handle (@IAmOxfordComma) where the candid comma unabashedly spends its time condemning Donald Trump for not using Oxford Commas in his tweets.

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The Oxford Comma gets its name from the Oxford University Press where it was traditionally used by editors, printers and publishers. While the Oxford University Press still uses the serial comma, the Oxford University PR department does not.

In most cases, it is easy to disambiguate the multiple meanings in simple lists with the help of context. For example, “I eat meat, veggies and fruits.” – the aforementioned sentence lists three items that are distinctly identifiable as three individual entities and thus, obviates the use of the Oxford Comma. Often clarity can be achieved by simply rewriting the sentence and reordering the list to provide more sense to the reader. For example, the sentence “I would like to thank my parents, George Bush, and Oprah Winfrey” can be rewritten to avoid ambiguity and to eliminate the serial comma as “I would like to thank George Bush, Oprah Winfrey and my parents”. Few grammar debates, however, have gotten language pedants more hot under the collar than the ones currently surrounding the Oxford Comma.

In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy over an ambiguous law, seeking four years worth of overtime pay  which they were being denied. Maine law requires workers to be paid 1.5 times of their rate for overtime work.

The following state law stipulates that overtime does not apply to: 

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.

The drivers’ case hinged on the argument that since they distribute but do not pack, they ought to qualify for overtime pay. The lack of a comma between ‘packing for shipment’ and ‘distribution of…’ indicates that packing is one activity that results in either shipment or distribution. This means that the act of distribution of perishable foods would be entitled to overtime pay. Moreover, they asserted that ‘canning, preserving, freezing, drying, etc’. are all gerunds (verb forms acting as nouns), while ‘shipment’ and ‘distribution’ are not – therefore the drivers were able to argue that ‘shipment’ and ‘distribution’ are object of the preposition ‘for’. The above argument was supported by the Chicago Manual of Style.  The Appeals Court Judge sided with the drivers (after the district court ruled in the favor of Oakhurst Dairy) resulting in the drivers receiving 10 millions dollars of overtime pay. Although only 3 drivers filed the lawsuit, the amount was shared amongst 75 drivers who earned between $46,800 and $52,000 per year as salary. 

The two main philosophies for choosing one style over the other are clarity and economy. Each side has invoked both rationales in its favor.

Pro: “…use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the commonsense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at negligible cost.” – Wilson Follett, in his 1966 Modern American Usage

Con: “There are certain places where for the sake of clarity and good form the presence of a comma is obligatory, but on the other hand a too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader.” – 1937, New York Times

Although the Oxford Comma is used for stylistic purposes more often than not, I personally believe that there’s no harm in using one in complicated lists to avoid ambiguity. That way, if the comma is missing, the reader will know for sure that there’s a good reason why. 

“Zinovieff shot over five hundred of the bourgeoisie at a stroke—nobles, professors, officers, journalists, men and women.”

The above statement reads that both men and women were among the nobles, professors, officers and journalists. The lack of the comma suggests that men and women aren’t two additional groups on the list. 

On a fun note, Vampire Weekend recorded a song called Who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma? Check it out 😀

Also, check out @IAmOxfordComma for some real good grammar laughs! 😛

P.S. What is your opinion concerning the Oxford Comma? 



2 thoughts on “Comma or No Comma? – The 10 Million Dollar Question

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