In Defence of the Oxford Comma

My Parents, Dr Meakin and God

The bride had struggled through a long and gruelling illness. In her reception speech, she gave public thanks to the love of her life for his constant support and for giving her the strength to fight.

“And,” she added, “I’d also like to thank my parents, Dr Meakin, and God.”

In her voice, we all heard the comma after “Dr Meakin”. We all knew that the bride was thanking her parents and Dr Meakin and God. If she had just been thanking her parents, who happened to be Dr Meakin and God, then there would have been different inflections in her voice. The tune would have been different.

That serial comma (aka Oxford comma) might well have been there in her notes. (I felt that asking to see the bride’s speech notes might be seen as nudging the bounds of courtesy.) But considering the fact that many people are vehemently opposed to the Oxford comma, there’s a good chance that the little fellow wasn’t there.

Consistency is key

Consistency is, of course, essential in written copy, and you don’t have to read many paragraphs by one author before you’ve figured out their style.

If somebody else had been speaking on the bride’s behalf, from her written notes, and had read, “I’d like to thank my wonderful husband for the love, care and understanding he’s shown me …” and then went on to thank her “parents, Dr Meakin and God,” the speaker would most likely have interpreted the list as the bride’s parents, her doctor, and God – and we, the wedding guests, would have understood that the thanks were being shared four ways.

But if the bride’s parents were Dr Meakin and God … or Miranda Hart and the bride’s French teacher … or David and Betty … or Sally and Brian … then what? Written by a hater of the Oxford comma, how would the copy differentiate between the end of a list and a qualifying phrase?

Oxford comma wins $5,000,000 in compensation

The Oxford comma usually comes as standard in US English. However, based on the ambiguity caused by the absence of one comma in Maine’s overtime laws, drivers for a dairy company sued their employer, in 2014, for unpaid overtime.

These activities, according to the state’s law, were not eligible for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: agricultural produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods.

The drivers claimed that packing for shipment or distribution only referred to the act of packing. If there’d been a comma after shipment, the law would have clearly stated that the act of distribution was not eligible for overtime pay. But there was no comma after shipment, and therefore distribution wasn’t actually listed as being exempt from overtime pay.

A district court ruled in favour of the drivers’ employer, Oakhurst Dairy, saying that the law unambiguously identified packing and distribution as two separate activities, both exempt from overtime pay.

In 2017, the drivers appealed the decision. A court of appeals ruled in favour of the drivers, and Oakhurst Dairy made a settlement of $5,000,000.

Just one comma would have cleared things up

Maine’s overtime law is now edited, and states clearly that the following activities are exempt from overtime:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;
  2. Meat and fish products;
  3. Perishable foods.

Maybe the semi-colons are over-kill – after all, just that one comma would have cleared things up.

So let’s raise a glass of milk to those punctuation zealots in Maine, USA.

Very well done, chaps!

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