The Oxford Comma: A Dive Into the Debatable Punctuation Mark

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Professional writers, content creators, and grammar nerds have surprisingly heated arguments about the Oxford comma, aka the serial comma. Depending on the style guide you use, you’ll notice different rules about the Oxford comma, so named because it was preferred by editors at Oxford University Press.

What is the Oxford comma?

Aside from its popularity in a song by Vampire Weekend, you also use the Oxford comma to indicate the final item on a list. It’s also known as the serial comma or series comma often place in lists with three or more terms. In the book ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation‘ by former editor Lynn Truss, people first got an idea of the implications of an extra or missing comma. The title of the book referenced a joke about the way a panda’s diet is comprised of shoots and leaves. The irony being the sentence could be understood in multiple ways.

Eats, shoots, and leaves. As in the panda eats, then shoots up the place, and then leaves. In this instance, the wrongly placed first comma then inspired a completely confusing last comma. The Oxford comma as it relates to a panda was wrong in all ways.

A better option for describing a panda’s diet might have been:

Eats shoots and leaves.

In this case, it goes for the panda’s diet. He eats shoots and also eats leaves. The end.

A lawsuit in Maine once hinged on the absence of an extra comma. Whether you love or hate the Oxford Comma, you should read more @clearvoice #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

When a lawsuit hinges on a missing comma

If you think that analyzing a punctuation point is overrated, it’s worth paying attention to the potential legalities involved with a misplaced comma.

In March 2017, NBC News reported on a lawsuit that was quite literally settled because of a missing comma. The story titled “Oxford Comma Defenders, Rejoice! Judge Bases Ruling on Punctuation” went on to explain the victorious lawsuit of a group of Maine dairy drivers. In that lawsuit, dairy drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy and Dairy Farmers of America Inc. about whether or not they qualified for overtime.

The sentence in question was discussing overtime for drivers.

“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.”

As reported in the article, since the word shipment is not followed by a comma, First Circuit Judge David Barron believes it is unclear whether packing for shipping or distribution is a separate activity or part of distribution.

The judge ended up ruling in favor of the drivers. In what proves to be a fascinating detail, the article reports “In Maine, the guide for drafting legislation warns against using an Oxford comma.” Had the legislation for overtime included the comma, the drivers might not have won their case.

Sometimes you hate the Oxford comma but still use it

So what happens in everyday grammar wars? Long-time editor Kathy McCabe, who’s currently the host of the PBS TV Series ‘Dream of Italy’, had a strong reaction to the comma in question. “I feel like I’m revealing some long-held deep dark secret here. I don’t like and don’t use the Oxford comma. Basically, it seems redundant to me, cluttered.”

McCabe said Frances Mayes, author of ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’, wrote the foreword for the companion book to McCabe’s new special ‘Dream of Italy: Travel, Transform and Thrive’. McCabe loved the introduction to the book including extremely kind words about her, but something gave her pause. “There it was, as plain as daylight, the Oxford comma. What do you do when you are editing France Mayes? I mean, can you even think of taking it out?”


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About the author

Rachel Weingarten

Rachel is an experienced freelance content creator, content strategist, writer and copywriter, and author of three award-winning nonfiction books. She specializes in business and style and the business of style.