The Oxford Comma Argument Rages On

Should the Oxford comma be the hill that you die on?

Should the Oxford comma be the hill that you die on?

“Nothing, but nothing—profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse—excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma,” according to The New Yorker. Much like asking creative types if they put one space or two after a period, demanding they pick a side in the serial-comma debate can spark fistfights, especially now that we’ve learned a misplaced comma could cost your company millions of dollars. While there’s no definitive answer to the Oxford comma question, working with content-development experts can reduce comma-related freak-outs.

Before going any further, a refresher: An Oxford or serial comma is placed after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, like this: gin, vodka, and rum. People who don’t like extraneous punctuation prefer to dispense with the second comma: gin, vodka and rum. However, if the series of items could be confusing without that second comma, then even non-Oxford-comma adherents will add one in. In these cases, the lack of a comma could cause head-scratching moments of confusion, like the oft-cited (and probably hypothetical) example, “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (Could have used a comma after “Ayn Rand.”)

The pro/con Oxford comma debate surfaced in mid-March following a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in favor of Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers seeking overtime pay. State law says 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 case hinged on the lack of a comma after “shipment.” The dairy said “distribution” (that is, driving and delivering) was part of the exemption, which meant the drivers shouldn’t get overtime. The truck drivers argued that since “packing for shipment or distribution” appeared to be the same activity, the overtime exemption didn’t apply, so they were owed money. But without that Oxford comma, the judge decided the language was ambiguous enough that the drivers’ case should be heard in a lower court.

Yes, the case has been a joy for grammar and punctuation nerds, but it again raises the question: Do you need that Oxford comma? The answer depends on which style guide you (or your content development experts) prefer. The Associated Press Stylebook calls for omitting the Oxford comma (unless needed for clarity). The Chicago Manual of Style is pro-Oxford comma. At The New Yorker, copy editors consider use of the Oxford comma a sacred responsibility: “ … it is a copy editor’s duty to deploy the serial comma, along with lots of other lip-smacking bits of punctuation, as a bulwark against barbarianism.” OK, then.

Among Content Bureau editors and writers, opinions also vary. I started my career in newspapers and stuck closely to AP style, therefore, no Oxford comma. I came around a few years ago when I was realized it was easier to tell clients (and other writers whose work I edit) to simply add the extra comma and end the arguments about whether the sentence required extra punctuation. Just add the comma and be done with it, I say.

No matter our personal quirks about serial commas, when the Content Bureau works with clients, we’ll adhere to chosen style guidelines—or in the absence of a preference, ensure that commas are used consistently throughout a document. Who knows, maybe we’ll save you from a costly comma-induced lawsuit.

By Chris Kent