February 4, 2018 by Petrea
Writing Wrongs: The Oxford Comma
Who gives a damn about an Oxford comma?
First, let’s define it. The Oxford comma is the last comma in a list of three or more items. It comes after the second-to-last item and before “and” or “or.” The list in question could be something as simple as
lions, tigers, and bears
The comma after “tigers” is the Oxford comma.
You could just as easily write
lions, tigers and bears
and the meaning of the phrase remains the same.
Some people say you should always use an Oxford comma. Some people say you should never use it, because (in this case) “and” performs the same function.
Who cares, right?
Well, a court of law might care. In a now-famous case, dairy truck drivers sued the dairy for overtime pay they hadn’t received.
I’ll briefly quote the article in the link:
“According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay:
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.
There, in the comma-less space between the words ‘shipment’ and ‘or,’ the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued. Is packing (for shipment or distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two different activities, and both exempt?”
The drivers won the case.
Outside of a courtroom, I think you should use the Oxford comma if it clarifies your meaning. After all, if we didn’t need to communicate clearly, we wouldn’t give a damn about grammar, punctuation, or spelling. (See what I did there?) We’d just say “damn punctuation, worry spelling give a grammar about!” and hope folks knew what we meant.
With or without the Oxford comma, you know what I’m saying when I refer to grammar, punctuation or spelling. In simple lists like this one, go with whatever floats your boat—unless you’re dealing with the law, then don’t listen to me, call a lawyer.
But what about situations where we need clarification? You might have seen this meme, which explains our conundrum:
I wish I knew who made this. I’d love to credit them. It seems to have started on tumblr but is no longer there.
In the first sentence in the illustration above, it’s clear who’s invited: Stalin, strippers, and JFK. It doesn’t matter what order you say them in. With the Oxford comma, we know these people were invited. We could keep going: the strippers, JFK, Stalin, Bernie Sanders, Ella Fitzgerald, and mom.
The problem with leaving the serial comma out is illustrated in the second instance. Without the comma, we could be saying that JFK and Stalin are the strippers. Another way to write that would be to use a colon, as in, “the strippers: JFK and Stalin.”
“I bought groceries, beer and cookies” is another example. In speech, you’ll know what I mean. But on the page, am I telling you I bought groceries as well as beer and cookies? Or am telling you that all I’m going to ingest this week is beer and cookies? The Oxford Comma would clarify.
I like the Oxford comma. It makes your writing clear. You don’t need it in a case like, “We bought baseballs, bats and mitts.” You do need it in a case like that of the strippers.
And we can’t discuss the Oxford comma without this charming ditty, which has nothing to do with commas. Listen if you don’t mind the F word.
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