Comma Conundrum

Comma Conundrum

Surely, you’ve heard it all before. Heralded as a key mark for clarity, bemoaned as a pretentious rhythm breaking roadblock, the Oxford comma has sparked more eye-rolling debates than a piece of punctuation might deserve. To review, the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma, and, rarely, the Harvard comma) is the comma placed before the coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more items.

Recently, the Oxford comma became the pivot point in a legal ruling on an appeal for overtime pay levied by dairy truck operators in Maine.

The genesis of the litigation, a list of work activities for which workers in the state cannot receive overtime pay, appears as follows in Maine labor guidelines Exemption F:

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

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

Direct your attention to the white space preceding the coordinating conjunction, “or.” Without the inclusion of a comma, the final item on this list is “packing for shipment or distribution.” Had there been a comma, both “packing for shipment” and “distribution” would be separate exemptions.

Dairy truck drivers argued for overtime pay based on this lack of comma. “Distribution,” they point out should not be exempt from overtime compensation.

Judge David J. Barron of the First Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In the very first line of his opinion, ruling in favor of the drivers, he pinpoints the crux of the matter. “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

This dairy truck comma conundrum has received quite a bit of press. Even the New York Times has weighed in. But this maelstrom surrounding this particular punctuation is nothing new and far from a finished debate.

Yes, in this legal instance, the Oxford comma has won the day. But does this ruling signal a universal victory for the serial comma? Let’s not be hasty.

You’ve seen all the examples before, the sentences where lack of an Oxford comma mangles intended meaning. “For breakfast, I had eggs, toast and orange juice.” Without a comma before “and” the sentence states that with your scrambled eggs you enjoyed a side of soggy, tangy toast. One might argue that a discerning reader would understand that, in spite of your lightly punctuated sentence, you did not intend to break both the conventions of breakfast and punctuation. That said, if piercing clarity is your aim, an aim that should certainly be paramount in legal documents like Maine’s labor code, the Oxford comma is necessary.

But not every sentence is a legally binding document, and there are other considerations when weighing the merits of a serial comma. Aesthetically, what happens when we saturate our sentences with commas? Gertrude Stein wants you to know that she is not on team comma in her book On Punctuation.

The comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath.

Granted, she’s not speaking specifically to the Oxford comma here, but arguing for a general skepticism toward comma use, a caution to avoid relying on the comma’s curve when a manufactured pause mars a sentence.

Most journalists, following AP style, also omit the Oxford comma. Many see this practice as one that prizes efficiency and concision. This argument might have less to do with the Oxford comma itself, and more to do with a plea for careful construction, for sentences that are clear without the necessary burden of a serial comma.

As is probably apparent from my dependent clause-laden style, I’m not an avowed comma foe. That said, I do roll my eyes at the insistence that Oxford comma use is a panacea, a way to fix all problems of clarity.

Often evoked in this Oxford comma debate is a Vampire Weekend song popular back when I was in college, before people could wrestle with comma use in places like the Twitersphere. The catchy refrain of that song is, essentially, Who gives a &$!@ about an Oxford comma? As it turns out, circuit judges do, but maybe everyone else could stand to care a little less.



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Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

1 thought on “Comma Conundrum”

  • For my money, I think its use is critical, not only in legal documents. Leaving it out to save space is laughable. Plus, if one believes in clarity, or if one follows White and Strunk, one uses this comma. I see, as I’m the only responder to this post, that I’m in the majority on this point. Well written, Vince.

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