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 editors preferred it at the Oxford University Press.

What is the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma or series comma, is used in lists of three or more items before the coordinating conjunction. For example, “The new hire is a writer, editor, and content marketer.”

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.

When should you use the Oxford comma?

While whether you use the serial comma or not is usually dictated by your style guide preference or in-house guidelines, you should use it when clarity is an issue.

For example: “Her heroes are her parents, John Legend and Adele.” Without the Oxford comma, the sentence implies that John Legend and Adele are this person’s parents. Add the Oxford comma, and it can no longer be misconstrued: “Her heroes are her parents, John Legend, and Adele.”

The serial comma even inspired a lawsuit.

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

Some years back, a lawsuit was filed by a group of Maine dairy drivers. In that lawsuit, the dairy drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy and Dairy Farmers of America Inc. about whether or not they qualified for overtime.

The sentence in question discussed 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.

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