Serially abused: why everyone’s wrong about the Oxford comma

Back in March, the Oxford comma was at the centre of a multi-million-dollar class-action lawsuit. Delivery drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy in Maine, USA, were seeking restitution for overtime, which their contracts stipulated certain employees were not entitled to. Overtime was not to be paid to workers involved in:

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.

There are two ways of reading this list: you either see ‘packing for shipment’ and ‘distribution’ as discrete actions, two separate job descriptors, or you see ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ as a single descriptor, the act of ‘packing’ for both shipment and distribution. The former is what Oakhurst Dairy intended, but the driver’s legal representation successfully argued that the absence of a comma between these two items made the contract ambiguous, and that in the face of this ambiguity payment was owed to the drivers. The absence of an Oxford comma, perhaps our most controversial punctuation mark, won the case.

This was a win for a certain subset of grammar aficionados, and an even bigger win for writing teachers, who now have a real-world example of the Oxford comma’s usefulness more effective than ‘my heroes are my parents, Superman and Wonder Woman’. The contract was following the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, last revised in 2009, which warns that ‘commas are probably the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language’. The manual explicitly demands that you ‘don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series’.

This is the same rule many people are taught at school, and carry into adulthood. The AP Stylebook, the grammar style and usage guide favoured by journalists in the US, advises against it. As a university tutor teaching a topic focused on communication, I tend to take a more liberal approach when discussing this oddly controversial little mark: the benefits of providing clarity outweigh whatever logic could be used to justify maintaining tradition and leaving it out, although if confusion is not caused by its absence than leaving it off can be an aesthetically sensible choice, too.

This case has had me thinking about the Oxford comma more than I usually would, and reflecting on the shifting perceptions of punctuation, and good writing in general, in modern society. I am not the type to correct someone’s possessive use of ‘it’s’ on a Facebook post, and the moment I correct someone on using ‘amount’ when they should have used ‘number’ I feel embarrassed for myself rather than for them. It is unreasonable to expect everyone to know the seven specific rules that dictate comma usage, and it makes sense that people are confused by ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ meaning different things when ‘lay’ is also the past tense for ‘lie’. When I teach my students, I know that few of them will leave at the end of the semester as grammar experts; that takes not only time and focus, but the right overlap of interests to actually care about dangling modifiers and subject-verb agreements. Not everyone is the kind of language nerd that will find David Foster Wallace’s ‘Authority and American Usage’ fascinating and engrossing, or will identify with Oscar Wilde’s anecdote about spending all morning taking out a comma and all afternoon putting it back in.

But knowing the basics of effective written communication is more important now than it was twenty years ago, as much of our communication has moved to text-based interactions. People who need to communicate effectively enough to make their point clear, whatever it may be on any given issue, through several text-based mediums. Whether someone is texting their partner, spewing hate on a brand’s Facebook page, or tweeting at Justin Bieber begging for a follow-back, clarity is important. Clarity can, of course, still be achieved without knowing all the rules: ‘your funny i like ur page’ functionally means the same thing as ‘you’re funny, and I like your page’.

But there’s so much room for misinterpretation if something isn’t worded quite right. Few know this better than Justine Sacco, whose infamous ‘AIDS’ tweet (‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’) didn’t register as the joke about white privilege she had intended it to be. ‘I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal,’ she later told journalist Jon Ronson for his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Sacco’s misunderstanding of how her words would be read was extremely costly for her – she was fired from her job and faced heavy public scrutiny.

Opportunities to misrepresent ourselves are more abundant than ever, yet the value of clear communication and good editing seems to have dropped. Back in April, News Corp, Murdoch’s newspaper conglomerate, announced major cuts that would see most of its subeditors and photographers scrapped.  For a newspaper, where content is produced fast and printed with little turnaround time for editorial oversight, subeditors are extremely important, yet they’re also the first to go in times of financial hardship. Working as a freelancer over the last decade, I have watched as the title of ‘deputy editor’ has slowly disappeared from the magazines I have worked on, with stringent editing falling either entirely to the editor or to workers who are tasked with completing the job across several magazines, their expertise stretched thin. Good writing is more enjoyable to read, and the best writing is massaged into greatness by a team. Read the acknowledgements page of any great novel and you’ll see that the writer is ‘indebted’ to their editors, that they ‘couldn’t have done it’ without suggestions and notes.

This month, writers and editors at Fairfax Media went on strike over the company’s decision to cut a quarter of their remaining forces. On 8 May, the Sydney Morning Herald featured a prominent typo on the very first page: ‘Household debt a threat to ecomomy’. This may not be a mistake that is likely to lead to genuine misunderstanding, but it’s certainly an embarrassing headline to run with, and one that indicates a slipping of standards.  We now have more writing being produced much faster, and editorial processes are often bypassed. Without naming names, a pop culture site that I visit daily is noticeably overrun with misspellings, comma splices, incorrect semicolons (they separate independent clauses, remember) and incomplete sentences, many of which remain permanently despite how easy they would be to fix. They don’t get fixed because that’s no-one’s job anymore.

The Oakhurst Dairy’s settlement shows just how important specificity and clarity can be. In this case a document’s error has served as a force for good, granting underpaid workers a massive bonus. It should also serve a reminder of how grammar, punctuation, and unclear communicative practices can obscure intent. It’s important that we don’t lose sight of this; stylistically effective semicolons aren’t going to deploy themselves.


Image: Chasing down Grandma’s Lost Oxford Comma, I Bet / Alan Levine

James OConnor

James O’Connor is a freelance journalist and critic, and a university tutor and lecturer. He mostly writes about videogames, but also dabbles in film, literature and now punctuation, it seems. He is based in Adelaide and tweets at @Jickle.

More by James OConnor ›

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  1. There are too many commas in this sentence: “This case has had me thinking about the Oxford comma more than I usually would, and reflecting on the shifting perceptions of punctuation, and good writing in general, in modern society.” The “in modern society” could also be moved to somewhere else in the sentence. Where would you put it? Obviously you’ve thought a lot about commas, but what about the stylistics of writing euphonious sentences?

  2. As the short essay has been dated, and uses a tense reflecting the present, we know it is talking about now, so “in modern society” is probably unnecessary.

  3. “People who need to communicate effectively enough to make their point clear, whatever it may be on any given issue, through several text-based mediums.”


  4. In an age of Trump and Wallace Foster everything is trivialised, so what’s you point? That the first, last and only word with regard to prose style was passed down on a stone tablet by Orwell in one overrated essay? And how can you write on the Oxford Comma without mentioning Vampire Weekend who sang This Land is Your Land with Bernie Sanders?

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