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LET’S CELEBRATE the Oxford comma and its use at this website. Indeed, it made its debut here only yesterday with that second comma in “greed, stupidity, and political corruption.” There’s good reason behind this change. Indeed, there’s also a matter of $10 million (not owed to nor by SimanaitisSays, I hasten to add).
The brouhaha focuses on “A, B and C” versus “A, B, and C.” This second comma in “A, B, and C” is known as a serial comma; aka an Oxford comma. Some prefer it; others do not.
As examples, “A, B and C” is the choice at People, Variety, and the National Enquirer. By contrast, the Oxford comma, “A, B, and C” is standard usage in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Magazine.
If you get the drift of things….
As a low-brow/high-brow tie-breaker, let’s consult authorities of English usage. The Associated Press Stylebook 2017 says to omit the Oxford comma except when necessary for clarity. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition says it should always be used.
As an example, clarity stumbles with a wonderful book dedication, “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Talk about impressive parentage!
The lack of Oxford comma also brought about O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, a court case involving $10 million. At its core is a Maine law concerning time-and-half pay requirements exempting employees in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural products; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”
Note the lack of Oxford comma before “or distribution.”
Oakhurst drivers read “packing for shipment or distribution” as a single phrase. And, because they weren’t engaged in the packing, they argued the law’s time-and-half exemption didn’t apply to them.
The dairy argued that “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were two distinct things, and the exemption applied to drivers.
To sour the milk even more, the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual specifically rules out the Oxford comma: “when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series.”
Do you suppose they’re intent on saving ink?
A District court granted a summary judgment against the drivers. A First Circuit court reversed this and concluded that ambiguity prevailed. Not a Good Thing in legislation.
Note that the application of an Oxford comma would have eliminated the ambiguity: “packing for shipment, or distribution” clearly would include the drivers in the exemption. Bad for them; good for legal clarity.
Curiously (though not identified in my research of this matter), I observe that there is a serial semicolon in the law, separating “(2) Meat and fish products” from “(3) Perishable foods.”
I wonder: Does this “Oxford semicolon” raise a redundancy based on the evident perishability of meat and fish products? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017