Sunday, March 03, 2019

When to use the Oxford comma?

Just where do you place, or not place, the comma? Image Madam Grammar

I am not a grammar nerd. I fear the controversy over the Oxford or serial comma escaped my attention for a very long time. Wikipedia defines such a comma in this way: "In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma (also called an Oxford comma or a Harvard comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms." In the graphic above from Madam Grammar, you can see the Oxford comma in the second example.

I grew up in a world without Oxford commas. A comma marks a pause as does and, so you don't use them both. Indeed, just last week in editing documents originally written by someone enamoured of the Oxford comma I removed them with a degree of frustration, However, the March 2017 decision of a an Appeal Court in Maine, a decision that I have only just become aware of, made me reflect.

The case involved the question of whether drivers for the Oakhurst dairy in Maine were entitled to get paid overtime for some types of work. Under state law, drivers were supposed to get 1.5 times their normal pay for working overtime (more than 40 hours per week). However, the law provided some exceptions. Specifically in this case, you do not get special overtime pay for the following:

"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."

The case revolved around the absence of a comma after the word shipment. That missing comma cost Oakhurst $US5 million. You will find the full judgement here. It may appeal if you are a grammar nerd. 

Now before going on, Liz Bureman has a rather simple even masterly piece on the Oxford comma that  is worth reading.

I struggled a little with the judgement because it seemed to me that it wasn't just a question of a missing comma, but one of bad drafting that could have been avoided. 

A key thing in good drafting, it's something that lawyers such as Legal Eagle or marcellous have in spades, is the avoidance of ambiguity, the establishment of clarity. I sometimes struggle with that.

Had that clause come before me as an editor, my instinctive reaction would have been to insert commas after packing and distribution, thus reading " storing, packing, for shipment or distribution, of". In this case you have a series of activities which are exempted from overtime if they are being carried out for shipping or distribution. The acts of shipment and distribution would still have attracted overtime. To provide greater clarity still, the comma between storing and packing could have been replaced with and.  

Now say someone had said to me in response, "that's not right, we want to cover shipment and distribution as well. Then the clause would be amended to read "storing, packing, shipment and distribution of", replacing or with and. 

I said that I am not a grammar nerd. I reserve the right to continue to delete the Oxford comma in simple lists because it adds nothing, just detracts from the flow. Where there are ambiguities, then it comes back to the construction that provides the greatest clarity and, in my case, sounds best!  


Anonymous said...

I try to think of "and" and "or" as stronger than simple commas in sentence construction - a bit like in math where multiply and divide cleave* more strongly than plus or minus. Example:

a + b x c actually means a plus the sum of b times c NOT a plus b the sum of which is then multiplied by c.

i.e. put mental brackets () around b x c NOT around a + b.

* And then we can move onto that magical word "cleave" which can mean either "sticking close to something/body" or "split asunder".

Should be easier, as no commas are involved :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Laughs! I think of an as an addition, whereas or is an alternative - to something.

In bxc the multiplier makes for an entity. I was going to try to express it all in terms of logic such as a and by. But in a and b it means both together whereas these sentences mean or - but it's not quite that!

marcellous said...

"storing, packing for shipment or distribution of"

It is not so simple as a missing comma since after all whether the comma is missing depends on what rule you have for needing the comma in the first place. On a quick reading of the judgment, that is what the court decided. If there had been a comma before "distribution" it would have been a "tie-breaker," but in the absence of the comma the court couldn't decide whether the exemption from overtime was only for the "ing" words as a set for the "tion" activities, or whether the "or" at the end meant that "distribution" was the last item in a list of overtime-exempt activities. Because there was an ambiguity and the legslation is protective of workers the exemption from overtime could be construed in the workers' favour, which meant that the summary decision in the the employers' favour, based on the view that there was no possible argument in the workers' favour, was set aside.

The employer settled so the case was never really decided. The workers won the battle but have meanwhile lost the war because the state legislature has amended the legislature to resolve any ambiguity in the employers' favour.

The difficulty to me seems to me that there is a human tendency to try to squeeze too much into lists - especially, funnily enough, at the end. Once you start introducing compound terms into lists ambiguities arise as to the commutative operation of the list (to borrow from the multiplication/addition analogy already suggested). It's certainly a problem when "and" and "or" lists end up mixed together but it can also cause difficulties even where only "or" or "and" is used.

In my own writing I'd say I get the most problems from (1) trying to pack too much in and (2) parenthetical or after- thoughts, especially when (3) necessary adjustments as a result of editorial changes are overlooked.

My main bugbear when I read over my own prose is untangling the order of qualifiers which can sometimes end up looking as though they qualify the wrong thing. It's hard to think of an example right now. I suspect this is something which is handled in speech by stress and rhythm which don't get into the written form.

marcellous said...


the the employers'

should read

the employer's

marcellous said...


"to resolve any ambiguity in the employers' favour"

should be

"to resolve in the employers' favour any ambiguity"

That's an extension of the bugbear I referred to.

Anonymous said...

So... "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" :)

And yes, I do recognise it has been wildly misinterpreted - but it seems somehow appropriate, even tho' my respect for the profession, and for the practitioners I have dealt with, remains fairly high.


Anonymous said...

Addition: marcellous, your point regarding "stress and rhythm" in speech is very well made.


Anonymous said...

And (possibly :) lastly, marcellous does the usual lawyers' trick of excising that which discomfits him:

The original wording was:

"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of"

- which is a "list".

Compared to marcellous' version:

"storing, packing for shipment or distribution of"

- which reduces that into a two-fer - somewhat less than the original 8/9 items under argument?


marcellous said...

KVD, it was just a "snip." I momentarily thought, "Should I 'snip' more?" Then I thought, "Nah! everybody knows it's just a snip and everyone can go back to the original."

But I'm not sure how it affects what I said. How do you suppose I was discomfited by what I omitted?