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Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma, Chameleon


We recently looked at typography. (And thank you to everyone who shared that post!) Today, we're going to talk about one tiny bit of type: the comma. Serial or "Oxford" commas are a big point of debate among writers, editors, and brand style guide authors.

What is an Oxford comma? It's a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before the word "and" or "or."

So, an Oxford comma-compliant sentence would be: Some of the best direct marketing tactics include email, postal mail, print ads, and radio spots. Without the Oxford comma, the same sentence would read: Some of the best direct mail tactics include email, postal mail, print ads and radio spots.

We know what you're thinking ... BFD. (And, no, we don't mean Bidirectional Forwarding Detection.)

Granted, in the example above, there isn't a lot of difference between the two sentences. But, in many instances, the Oxford comma can and does provide clarity. Here are a couple of examples:

"Thank you for this Grammy Award. I'd also like to thank my parents, Lady Gaga, and Elton John." OR "Thank you for this Grammy Award. I'd also like to thank my parents, Lady Gaga and Elton John." In the first instance, the musician is acknowledging their mom and dad, and two musical influences. In the second, the musician is actually the bastard love child of Gaga and Elton. (Who knew?)

"The kids went for a picnic with their dogs, Grandma, and Grandpa." OR "The kids went for a picnic with their dogs, Grandma and Grandpa." Without the extra comma, the kids have demonstrated an unusual sense of humor about naming their pets.

"My favorite foods are cookies, cake, candy, and cauliflower." OR "My favorite foods are cookies, cake, candy and cauliflower." Candy and cauliflower, hmmm? Interesting combination.

We could make up examples all day (except for the fact that we actually work for a living). But, let's listen to a higher authority. In a class action suit a few years ago, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy claimed that they were owed overtime pay. Oakhurst disagreed, citing Maine law that states overtime (at 1.5x regular pay) is due to workers except in the cases of:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: Agricultural produce; Meat and fish product; and Perishable foods.

The law was meant to specify packing for shipment and distribution as two separate items of exclusion. However, they did not include a comma before the word or. Consequently, argued the attorneys for the drivers, as written they are one item: "packing for shipment or distribution." Distribution was not excluded in and of itself. Not only did the judge rule in the drivers' favor, but he defended his ruling by specifically explaining the value of that extra comma:

"Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not."

What was that extra comma worth? About $5 million. A very expensive punctuational oversight.

The serial comma will always have its naysayers — especially among the very young whose dependence on texting overrides any and everything they were taught in English class. But, the debate dates back a century.

H.L. Mencken wrote, "There is something prissy, pedantic and altogether un-American about the extra comma."

But, we prefer the specificity it offers, and agree instead with Wilson Follett, author of Follett's Modern American Usage. "Use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the commonsense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at negligible cost.”

In other words, better safe, protected, covered, and cautious than sorry.


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