Having enjoyed a good old British education – before the traditional academic structure got ripped apart – I was never one for the Oxford Comma. I’ve seen the debate rage. Held the jerseys of some who fought tooth and nail for one side of the debate or the other. I enjoyed the fight. But I continued my comma-less sentence endings as before. That changed recently – and you can blame the lawyers.
I didn’t really have a strong opinion about it. If a client preferred the Oxford, I included it. If an editor didn’t want it, I omitted it. My own preference was to do without, but I wasn’t prepared to go to war about it like some. Nor was I ever going to condemn the Oxfordian side.
But I read something recently about a legal case where the lawyer won due to a missing comma. The poor little comma has been boxed into a corner.
For some reason, this:
“Apples, pears, and bananas,” can be taken by lawyers to mean something different than this:
“Apples, pears and bananas”.
I believe the idea is that the second one could be interpreted as meaning “apples” as one thing and then “pears and bananas” as a combined concept as opposed to simply making up a list or two separate things. Splitting hairs!
But the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that a missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with drivers in an overtime dispute due to this sentence:
“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”.
Without the comma, before “or distribution,” the judge ruled that the sentence seemed to mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution. This one comma ended up costing a company millions of dollars in unintended overtime bonuses.
If my casual omission of a comma could one day have serious consequences or open the door to a lawyer bending the truth – well that settles it for me. I will use the Oxford comma. It’s not that one side is right or wrong. It’s just that the precedent has been set.
I will endeavor to use it, but don’t expect consistency. If I leave one out here and there, please don’t scream. In fact, I may occasionally omit one just to exert my freedom of speech!
As we are on the subject of commas, here is a far more interesting story about the evils of missing one on a page. This headline actually appeared on the cover of a large consumer publication. It featured a beautiful picture of TV chef Rachel Ray with her kids and her dogs.
Rachel Ray loves cooking her dogs and her children.
Oh, for a comma after cooking — but they missed it.