Don’t underestimate the Oxford Comma

When it comes to the English language, there are two subjects which are sure to arouse fierce debate: US vs British spelling and the Oxford Comma.

Thankfully, much like the Metric vs Imperial debate, the issue of spelling seems to be mostly settled with the US clinging on to its system like grim death while the rest of the world moves on without them.

The Oxford Comma, however, continues to divide people to this day with the debate having more extreme implications than one might expect.

Take the GO! & Express. As a newspaper, we have our own style guide that determines how our articles get written. This guide frowns upon the use of the Oxford Comma.

But moving on, just what is the Oxford Comma anyway? And how could such a small punctuation mark arouse so much emotion in people?

The Oxford Comma, also known as the serial comma, is used when writing lists of three or more items and comes before the coordinating conjunction (“and”, “or” etc.).

The comma’s main purpose is to avoid ambiguity and make it easier for readers to understand what is being said.

For example: I bought a box of eggs, a carton of milk, and a loaf of bread.

At this point, you may be wondering to yourself what the big deal is. After all, we’ve already established that using the Oxford Comma is optional and surely it can’t be that big of a deal, can it?

Well you see, an Oxford Comma can make all the difference in what a sentence means. There are plenty of famous examples but here’s one of my favourites.

“To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Now I doubt the author of this dedication meant to say that their parents were actually Ayn Rand and God but as it’s written, it is quite misleading. If we were to insert the Oxford Comma, however, the sentence would read instead:

“To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God”

And just like that, the entire meaning of the sentence has changed. It is now perfectly clear that the author is referring to three seperate people and is not claiming to be some sort of divine spawn of the Almighty and a dead Russian author.

This issue goes well beyond amusing headlines, however. The lack of an Oxford Comma has ended up costing some people quite a lot.

In 2014, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, US filed a case against their employers after being refused overtime based on a local law. In addition to transporting products, drivers were also involved in distributing them when they reached their destination.

The law which Oakland turned to when denying them overtime said all employees were entitled to overtime with the following exceptions::

The law in question stated that employers had to pay employees for any overtime with the following exceptions:

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.

Do you see the problem? If not, take another look. It’s right there, in the last group mentioned.

… packing for shipment or distribution of…

Oakhurst argued that this portion of the sentence was referring to two separate groups, those that pack for shipment and those that distribute.

The workers, however, said that since there was no Oxford Comma in the sentence, it was referring to just one group, those that pack the items whether it be for shipment or distribution.

The case dragged on for a number of years, eventually winding up in the US Court of Appeals in 2017. In the end, the court ruled that the law was too ambiguous and ruled in favour of the drivers.


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