Forgetting to use a comma can change everything. It can transform an impatient parent (“I’d like to eat, children”) into a prospective cannibal (I’d like to eat children”).
If you aren’t careful, an omitted comma can cost you $5 million. Just ask Oakhurst Dairy in Maine, which paid truck drivers that amount in overtime due to state law’s failure to use an Oxford comma.
The Oxford comma is not a comma that went to a fancy British university, but rather one that follows the penultimate item in a list. (“Penultimate” is a fancy word people who went to Oxford use to mean “second to last.”) Here’s an example of the Oxford comma at work: My three favorite foods are fish, chips, and Cheez-Its.
We in the newspaper trade don’t use the Oxford comma because we feel it’s unnecessary. Our goal is to be concise. And to find out whether they’re serving Cheez-Its at the press conference.
But there are times when using a comma in a list before the word “and” is a lifesaver. Example: “I love my parents, Neil Diamond, and Miss Piggy.” Remove the comma and the sentence becomes, “I love my parents, Neil Diamond and Miss Piggy.” Where THAT began, I can’t begin to know.
The Oakhurst Dairy case — containing butter and sour cream, but no extra commas — mobilized punctuation police across the country. I hereby convene my Word Crimes Tribunal — consisting of my nine loyal readers, paid in mass quantities of Cheez-Its — to hear the matter.
Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit ruled that a missing comma in Maine law created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers. This sent those who love the Oxford comma — so called because it was traditionally used by Oxford University Press — into delirium. Call it a comma coma.
The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it allowed exemptions for “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.”
What followed the last comma in that sentence was critical: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The court ruled it was unclear whether state law exempted the distribution of the three commodities that followed, or “packing for shipment or distribution” of them. Had a comma been placed after “shipment,” the meaning would’ve been clear.
The dairy paid up and Maine rewrote its law, adding semicolons after each category in the list of exemptions: “canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of” etc. Pending approval from the Word Crimes Tribunal, this word nerd would like to flag Maine’s legislature for excessive semicolon use. Dare I suggest a semicolon-oscopy?
Grammar geeks found the case thrilling, but the settlement meant the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t get a chance to rule on it, and potentially endorse the Oxford comma. Maine’s solution did little to resolve the Oxford comma debate — extraneous nuisance or ensurer of clarity? — as it refused to add a $5 million comma, opting instead for a cheap slew of semicolons.
The drivers’ lawyer told the New York Times News Service the settlement pleased all parties, but he wasn’t speaking for punctuation purists. The Word Crimes Tribunal certainly isn’t feeling satisfied, but that could be because I had already eaten most of the Cheez-Its.
Perhaps one day another case will come forward that gives our nation’s highest court an opportunity to rule on the Oxford comma’s merit. It is appropriate indeed that a debate about the comma, our language’s signal that something else is coming, is keeping us waiting.
Perhaps in the meantime I can get the court to rule on whether Neil Diamond and Miss Piggy are in fact my parents.