Use the Damned Oxford Comma!

Should we strive for clarity, bloviation, or casual familiarity in our prose?

I was trained in English grammar while attending Catholic high school in the early 1970s.  The nuns were crystal clear about the correct way to spell, punctuate, and form sentences.  There was a right way and a wrong way.  Any variation met with consequences.

Over the next 20 years or so, I came to consider myself a “prescriptionist” when it came to the correct use of English.  I was disappointed and concerned at non-standard usage and, honestly, a pain-in-the-butt.

As I mellowed in my dotage, I noticed the glorious variety of how things are said in various places as well as the fascinating evolution, ebb and flow, and color that comes from the buffeting of what we think of as standard English.  

Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil said in “The Story of English” [1]:

We have seen the emergence of many, many varieties of English coexisting with standard English.  It is common for people to use their local variety at home and seamlessly transition to the standard English in a business environment.

This has led to personal interest in these varieties of regional English and the provenance of words and phrases.  I now consider myself a “descriptionist” who is keen to understand this phenomenon.  I have emerged from this odyssey with more patience and interest in these varieties of language and grammar.


One fascinating aspect of grammar and punctuation is the Oxford comma.  The Oxford comma is a comma placed after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items.  It sits after the last item preceding the placement of the word “and” or the word “or”.  

The usage of the Oxford comma is, unfortunately waning as young whipper-snappers show casual disregard for the precision available to them by leveraging English grammar and punctuation.  Indeed, the New York Times Style Guide recommends against the use of the “serial comma” as they call the Oxford comma.  They argue: 

“… news writing has traditionally omitted the serial comma — perhaps seeking a more rapid feeling in the prose, or perhaps to save time and effort in the old days of manual typesetting.”


The absence of the Oxford comma in a sentence changes its meaning.  This is shown in the $5,000,000 lawsuit adjudicated by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Maine on March 13th, 2017. [3]   Three truck drivers sued the Oakhurst Dairy for four years of overtime they had not been paid.  A class action lawsuit on behalf of about 50 drivers claimed that they were denied overtime pay in contradiction to Maine State Law.  They were paid a salary of approximately $1000 per week but had been working an average of 12 extra hours per week for many years. [4]

Maine State Law 26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3) says:

… overtime rules do not apply to:

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.

Note the absence of the serial comma or Oxford comma when the law states that “overtime rules do NOT apply to the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:”.

This sentence was written in compliance with the Maine State Legislative Drafting Manual [5] that clearly states in Chapter 4, Section 2 (a): 

Series. Although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series. 

The First Circuit Ruling stated that Maine State Law 26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3) says “packing for shipment or distribution” is exempt from overtime pay.  That clearly states packing as the exempt activity.  Driving perishable goods like dairy products is NOT exempt from overtime pay. 

Had the missing Oxford comma been present, Oakhurst Dairy would have prevailed in their position that the drivers were not due $5,000,000 in back overtime pay.


We are seeing a radical shift in our grammar and punctuation as vague impression and casual usage prevail even in our legislative and journalistic guidelines.  Sometimes, this has expensive consequences.


So, as I’ve aged, increasing years separate me from my training in Catholic high school.  I’ve grown far more ecumenical in my acceptance of wide varieties of colloquialisms, slang, and udda [6] utter hogwash. I absolutely welcome and relish the fractal complexity and flexibility of English.

Except the Oxford comma; use the damned Oxford comma!


OPEN QUESTIONS:

  • Is the purpose of language to accurately communicate, amuse, or simply approximate our meaning with the fewest syllables?  Do we get extra credit for polysyllabic contortions of our prose?

  • Should some people find more productive hobbies than musing about amusing?

  • What role should monosyllabic grunts play in computer science technical literature?

  • How can clarity, precision, and concise expression be leveraged as we strive to eschew obfuscation?  When is it best to simply ramble and make up crap?


PS.  This post is derived from an IM interchange with my brother, Andy Helland, a few months back.

PPS. “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” – Benjamin Dreyer, Random House’s chief copy editor.


[1] Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil.  “The Story of English”. Viking Press. 1986.

[2] New York Times Style Guide

[3] KEVIN O'CONNOR; CHRISTOPHER O'CONNOR; JAMES ADAM COX; MICHAEL FRASER; ROBERT MCNALLY (Plaintiffs, Appellants). v. OAKHURST DAIRY; DAIRY FARMERS OF AMERICA, INC., APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MAINE, March 13th, 2017.

[4] Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute, New York Times, March 16, 2017.

[5] Maine State Legislative Drafting Manual

[6] https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Udda