By: Kira Ginter
March 28th, 2023
The Oxford comma (or serial comma) is the final comma in a list; it is the difference between saying “Matt, Kira, and Andrew” and “Matt, Kira and Andrew.” (Notice the absence of a second comma in the latter example being the only difference.)
The Oxford comma is considered optional by American English language standards. It is used by the Oxford Style Manual, Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), Modern Language Association style (MLA) and American Psychological Association style (APA). However, the serial comma is notably absent in the Associated Press style (AP), in which this article is formatted.
According to the Owl Post, “The Oxford comma is not commonly found in journalistic writing because of the spacing issues it causes, especially in a print newspaper. Every letter, piece of punctuation and graphic costs money.”
My introduction to the Oxford comma came in the format of a seventh-grade English class at Tecumseh Middle School, where I was told that omitting the Oxford Comma could make one lose out on money. My teacher told us a story—whether it be truth or fiction, I do not know— but it was definitely memorable.
She told us that if a will were written to say “I want Matt, Kira and Andrew to receive my money,” the money would have to be split 50/50. Matt would get half of the money; meanwhile, Kira and Andrew would get the other half together because there was no comma or separation between the latter two. Whereas, if it said “I want Matt, Kira, and Andrew to receive my money,” they would each receive one-third of the total sum because each name was understandably separated.
This may seem like a hypothetical issue, but for Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine this was a genuinely relevant problem. Legislation in Maine requires that for every hour worked over 40 hours, workers receive time and a half pay.
There were, of course, limited exceptions to this ruling. Maine legislature stated that the following were ineligible for overtime pay, “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.”
Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers declared that since there was no comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution of,” they were eligible for overtime. Therefore, three truck drivers took it upon themselves to sue the company for their overdue overtime payments. Truck drivers argued that the legislature stated “packing for shipment or distribution,” which read as one job; whereas the intended purpose was both “packing for shipment” and “distribution”.
Ultimately, due to the level of ambiguity and confusion related to the legislature’s formatting, the US Court of Appeals ruled on the side of the truck drivers. It benefitted around 120 of the firm’s drivers and cost Oakhurst Dairy around $5 million.
Understandably, since the Oakhurst Dairy issue, Maine has updated their legislature in order to cut down on confusion and ambiguity. It now reads, “The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”
Note that there are now semicolons (;) after each separate exclusion in order to eliminate future confusion.
The Oxford comma may seem like some silly optional grammatical device, but it could actually cost you millions of dollars.
If a court deems that an article is written ambiguously and can be interpreted in several different ways, then they are likely to err on the side of the confused. In order to prevent confusion and save money, authors must write cautiously and ‘think outside of the box.’ They must consider how their writing may be interpreted to ensure that they are fully protecting themselves and others.
Kira Ginter is a senior majoring in Professional and Public Writing and minoring in Peace and Justice Studies. She hopes to work as a nonprofit grant writer or in a similar field that allows her to showcase her love for reading, writing and editing. Kira is an avid dog lover and spends much of her free time with her two pit mixes, Pongo and Roxy.