The Oxford Comma

A recent article, first reported on the Quartz website, argued that a missing Oxford comma was to blame for a court’s ruling on overtime pay in Maine. The article explains that the list of duties ineligible for overtime pay was ambiguous because it was missing an Oxford comma.

An Oxford comma comes before the “and” in a list of three or more items. It is also known as the “serial comma.” I am a huge fan of the Oxford comma. It helps alleviate confusion. Yes, it takes up space, but when precise communication matters, such as in a legal document, then an Oxford comma is necessary.

Take this example into consideration:

If three children are left a considerable inheritance from their parents, then how should it be divided between them?

The inheritance is to be divided between Sue, Joe and Jack.

If the sentence read “equally between Sue, Joe and Jack,” then the missing Oxford comma might not matter. However, in this case, it is ambiguous whether or not the inheritance should be divided into equal thirds between the three children or if Sue should inherit 50% and Joe & Jack have to split the other half.

At a grammar conference I attended in the ’90s, the presenter argued this exact case (real or imagined, I never knew–but also mentioned here). Sue won this scenario because if Joe and Jack were meant to be considered separate entities, a comma would separate them, and it would be clear that the money should be divided into equal thirds.

Back to the modern case: the Main law reads as follows:

“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 written, which activities are exempt from overtime pay?

Unsure? Well, the courts were unsure as well. The drivers argued that “packing for shipment or distribution” is one activity, and therefore, those drivers who are shipping or distributing should be paid overtime.

The dairy company, however, argued that “packing,” “shipping,” and “distributing” were all exempt from overtime pay.

The court ruled in favor of the drivers.

The headlines across the Internet claim a missing Oxford comma is to blame for the ruling; however, I argue that the problem is more than just a missing comma. The problem is in a lack of parallelism.

Parallelism basically means that words in succession should be written in the same format. In this case, all of the activities in the list should be written with an “ing” ending.

If all of those activities are to be considered separately, including “shipment or distribution,” then all of them should be written with an -ing ending. Therefore, the following would be correct:

“The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing, [shipping, and distributing] of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

That’s not what they wrote, however, and therefore, the drivers had a good point. By all means, use the Oxford comma, but take it the next step and use parallel structure, too. You never know when it might really matter. Of course, I argue language always matters.

~ @TheWittyOwl

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *