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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#Oakhurst Dairy#Oxford comma#Vampire Weekend

Comments

  1. William Kendall - February 4, 2018 @ 11:14

    Commas: the difference between let’s eat, Grandma… and let’s eat Grandma.

    • Petrea - February 4, 2018 @ 12:11

      This must be the Eton comma.

  2. Barbara - February 4, 2018 @ 14:30

    To Oxford comma or not to Oxford comma …. It’s decisions like this that kept my editorial department busy. Each time someone checked a proof, they changed it to their preferred punctuation. So the little comma would be in, then out, then back in, then out again. Great fun.

    • Petrea - February 4, 2018 @ 15:10

      I’ve wondered if there is a Cambridge comma, but if there were, you would know.

  3. Lowell - February 4, 2018 @ 14:35

    Whew! I never thought much about commas. I never thought much about grammar. It just sort of, came, to me, so, there, too. Now, I’m too scared to write anything, anymore, ’cause I might somehow, perhaps, possibly, miss the proper comma in the proper place. 🙂

    • Petrea - February 4, 2018 @ 15:11

      Lowell, I think I’m understanding what you’re saying. Communication has happened! I won’t be rapping your knuckles.

  4. Rebecca Forstadt Olkowski - February 4, 2018 @ 21:13

    My Grammarly makes me use the Oxford comma. Otherwise, I see red underlines. It whips me into submission.

    • Petrea - February 5, 2018 @ 08:26

      Hi Rebecca! I’ve seen the Grammarly ads, but never checked it out. Do you like it?

  5. Anne Louise Bannon - February 5, 2018 @ 20:37

    I still hate the Oxford comma (although I concede there are times when clarity makes it useful). I also despised two spaces after a period and that’s gone now. So I keep hoping…

    • Petrea - February 5, 2018 @ 20:46

      Good things come to those who wait. I want to know how you feel about the em dash.

  6. Rob McCubbin - February 11, 2018 @ 03:38

    I was taught that a comma denoted a slight pause, and a full stop denoted a longer pause, maybe even a breath. When I am writing, I listen to how it sounds in my head, and put appropriate (to me) punctuation in. Am I wrong?

    • Petrea - February 11, 2018 @ 08:24

      Not necessarily! But one of the reasons English has rules is that some people hear more commas in their heads than others do. You’ve heard that rules are made to be broken, and I think that applies. But you have to know the rules in order to break them to your advantage.

  7. Rob McCubbin - February 11, 2018 @ 12:43

    I was also taught that at a comma your voice could rise and at a full stop your voice goes down. This was in storytelling classes (English Expression). It makes your voice more pleasant to listen to. Wish they would bring that all back for today’s teenagers and youngsters. Boring voices and far too fast for my taste. Our language is to be savoured, not gobbled.

    • Petrea - February 11, 2018 @ 14:37

      It sounds like you might have learned Shakespeare by the Folio, too, using punctuation as stage direction.

  8. Rob McCubbin - February 11, 2018 @ 17:08

    Our English Expression teacher loved reading aloud, and I think I caught the bug from him. It was a great help with Script Writing when I was making Doco films & TV for 17 years. I had a good voice then and sometimes our client would ask me to do the final rather than hire in. And when I was teaching, the little kids just loved Storytime.
    So I think what he taught stood me in good stead.
    Shakespeare, I could never get my head around. Still can’t. Chaucer, yes. Funny, isn’t it. Macbeth was the only Shakespeare I could relate to, probably because of my Scottish roots.
    …”by the Folio” I don’t understand. Please elaborate.

    • Petrea - February 11, 2018 @ 17:53

      The First Folio of Shakespeare. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Folio
      Many acting teachers swear by the Folio, saying that Shakespeare put his stage directions in the punctuation. (A comma means this, a mid-line period means that…I’m a little rusty on which punctuation means what!) But placement of punctuation in Shakespeare is essential, and sometimes disputed.

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