Take That, AP Style! Court of Law Rules the Oxford Comma Necessary

Take That, AP Style! Court of Law Rules the Oxford Comma Necessary

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“Who gives a $#%& about an Oxford comma?”

So goes one of my favorite lyrics by Vampire Weekend, and the answer to date has largely been: grammar nerds, Strunk & White and those who follow the infamous Chicago vs. AP style debate.

Now, we can add dairy driver to the list.

That’s because an appellate court recently ruled in favor of Maine dairy drivers in a labor dispute that hinged on the oft-debated piece of punctuation.

For anyone who’s ever wondered what all the fuss is about over Oxford commas, the circuit judge’s opinion says it all: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

What is the Oxford comma?

For those in need of a grammar refresh, here’s why an extra comma matters.

The Oxford comma (or serial comma) is a comma placed between the last two items in a series of three or more.

Proponents of the Oxford comma say it’s necessary to avoid potential ambiguity.

Does AP style use the Oxford comma?

No. AP style (that’s the Associated Press stylebook, which many journalists live by) does NOT use an Oxford comma.

However, Chicago style (or the Chicago Manual of Style, which is commonly used by book publishers, academics and trade publications) DOES require an Oxford comma.

An Oxford comma example

Want to see how the Oxford comma works?

Here’s an example of a sentence with the Oxford comma: “I like cake, pizza, and ice cream.”

It’s clear in this example that I like three types of food in and of themselves. But remove that serial comma, and the sentence reads, “I like cake, pizza and ice cream” — leading to the potential to read the last two items as one combination item. I no longer like pizza and ice cream on their own, one could argue; I like pizza and ice cream only when they’re together. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

It was precisely this type of ambiguity that led to the Maine case.

The Oxford comma debate, and a $10 million comma

In this class action lawsuit, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued the company over its failure to grant them overtime pay.

According to Maine law, workers are entitled to 1.5 times their normal pay for any hours worked over 40 per week. However, there are exemptions to this rule. Specifically, companies don’t need to pay overtime for the following activities:

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

Note the end of the opening line, where there is no comma before the “or.”

Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to list “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two separate exempt activities.

However, the drivers argued the letter of the law said no such thing. Without that telltale Oxford comma, the law could be read to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution. Distribution by itself, in this case, would not be exempt.

Without that comma, as the judge maintained, this distinction was not clear-cut:

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.

As a result, the court found in favor of the drivers, costing the dairy an estimated $10 million.

oxford comma debate

Comma rules: To comma, or not to comma?

As a diehard Oxford comma loyalist, this ruling made my day. While many of the sites I write for as a freelance blogger follow AP style (including this one), which is sans-serial comma, I still sneak one in when it seems needed to avoid potential confusion. This case backs up that habit as more than just an old-school tic I haven’t yet let go.

While the debate may still rage on over whether Oxford commas are necessary all the time, this ruling upholds the practice of using them when they’re essential to ward off ambiguity.

So, who gives a $#%& about an Oxford comma? The answer, according to the courts, is officially: anyone who’s interested in clarity.

Take that, AP style!

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Photo via Lamai Prasitsuwan/ Shutterstock 

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  • BFantam Kinsey says:

    Well, it’s necessary if you’re writing legal agreements, patents, instructions or anything else you want to insure what it is you’re attempting to communicate is understood.

    It’s not necessary if it’s your intension to look like an idiot.

  • Ben says:

    Can’t help but notice that you left an Oxford Comma out of the very first paragraph of this piece. I guess you are anti-.

  • Kohlrak says:

    The whole point of grammar rules is for clarity. The rules matter not when clarity is not sacrificed by laziness, but if your message cannot be interpreted, it’s not worth anything at all.

  • Sandra Roddenberry says:

    I am a huge believer in the Oxford comma, and, in a moment of reflection, I wrote this “news” article to honor his passing.

    Mr. Oxford Comma Memorialized in Style

    CHICAGO – After years of providing clarity in the literary world and working closely with conjunctions such as And and Or, Mr. Oxford “Half-Stop” Comma was laid to rest this week. His memorial was punctuated by exclamations that highlighted his service to prose, questions that marked his untimely passing and a sense of finality to this period of writing excellence.

    The attendees included Period, Question Mark, Exclamation Point, and Dash among others. Hyphen sent her condolences as she was unable to attend due to her involvement with the little-known seminar entitled “Just When Exactly Do You Need Me?” Apostrophe was also unable to take part due to contractions; however, a couple of articles, A and The, were among the guests. They had been quite determined to attend, though The was definite and A was not.

    Exclamation Point was the spark of the event, though, as is widely known, a little bit of his passion goes a long way!!! Question Mark spoke hypothetically about what it would be like if he were to lose Inflection as his sentence-ending buddy, equating it to And losing Oxford, saying, “It leaves readers with the uncomfortable feeling that something is missing.”

    And and Or gave the most impressive and emotional eulogies, mourning the loss of Oxford and praising his support of writers everywhere. And shared how he saw the handwriting on the wall in recent years when the number of his collaborative adventures with Oxford began to decline. He applauded those in the Math and Science world for supporting their hard-working commas that continue to deliver clear numerical values. Or took a moment to charge Oxford’s detractors as being haters, or progressive artsy folks, and apologized for being somewhat undecided. After a few nonessential comments from Parentheses, Period delivered the benediction and finalized the ceremony.

    Comma Splice, a local punk band, peppered the evening with many of its songs including its two major hits–Run On and On and Miss Independent, Independent.

    Considering the eclectic mixture of memorial-goers, the event remained a fitting and appropriate remembrance of Oxford Comma. Through his long and successful career, he made his mark on writers and editors everywhere, and he will live on in good literature, satire and humor writing.

    Signatures of the attendees: %$”:&,?;#.()–*!

  • Tracy says:

    Everyone who thought they were so clever in pointing out that the comma is missing in her bio obviously didn’t read the whole thing. Not so clever after all! It’s an AP post and the comma would be edited out! She clearly states she “sneaks” it in when she can. Insert eye roll here. Go little O!

  • Ann Council says:

    Thanks for your post…..have always used the Oxford comma…..and always will….it just seemed right….guess I had good teachers…. graduated high school in 1951 ……nursing school 1954… pioneer? Or antique?

  • William Laing says:

    Go with the sense, which sometimes has different requirements.
    Take the standard version of Robert Frost’s delightful poem of Stopping By Woods on a Winter Night”:

    …the woods are lovely, dark and deep

    with a recent (surely mistaken) edition:

    …the woods are lovely, dark, and deep

    In the first it is the darkness and depth of the woods that explains the loveliness, whereas in the second the woods are merely (a) lovely; (b) dark; and (c) deep.

    And a dogmatic adherence to a rule can lead to, …well:
    [Student receiving award]: “I would like to thank my parents, Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand.”

  • Kim says:

    Yes! The missing last comma irks me. Can we also return the double space after a period? 😏

  • ablestmage says:

    The court has not ruled on the necessity of the oxford comma in general usage, but perhaps as a precedent for the use of it in this particular context within legal documents.

    I’m an AP guy, and Associated Press style applies to writing which the Associated Press governs, and not anything else except that by which someone with authority decides the AP style will be the governing style (such as a newswriting class that the AP doesn’t directly instruct).

    The ruling isn’t a blow to AP style, because AP style doesn’t govern legal documents like this.

  • Michael Riser says:

    Oxford comma forever. This shouldn’t be a style issue. One pauses briefly before the “and” when reading a serial list because it sounds entirely wrong not to. Try it with anything. It warrants a comma.

  • Ben Katz says:

    This ruling makes me very glad I don’t do legal transcription anymore. I used to argue with my court reporter about the Oxford comma rules constantly, but she preferred AP style. I threw quite a few in there that she didn’t catch, though!

  • Kelley Paystrup says:

    I use the Oxford comma. A science teacher last year, who was in the anti-Oxford comma crowd, received a teasing from me after he posted a student sign about lab safety: Do not eat, drink or chew gum. He had to either acknowledge I was right about the sign needing a comma, or admit that by his own posted sign it was okay to drink or chew gum in the lab.

  • Jeffery says:

    Now if they can just get to the horrendous misuse of semicolons.

  • amanda says:

    I LOVE this article, as much as I love the Oxford comma. Raised in the US with an English teacher as my mother, the Oxford comma was the ONLY way to write a serial list (who would fathom another way?). However, I currently teach English as an Additional Language in Asia where they use the Cambridge curriculum (AP style). It makes me cringe at the ambiguity. This made my day, too.

  • JimmyZ says:

    While I fully believe in the use of the Oxford comma, and understand it’s importance, this judge missed the boat on this ruling. When they used “or” instead of “and” they clearly indicated that the item on either side of the word was an individual item.

    “And” could have been construed both ways. “Or” means one or the other.

  • Leighann says:

    First, you stated that the law intended to exclude ONLY packaging. Then, you stated that the law intended to exclude packaging AND distribution. This really confused me.

    I copied the following paragraphs to show you what I mean.

    “Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they only engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution.”

    “Had there been an Oxford comma, it would be clear the law intended to exclude “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two separate exempt activities.”

    Otherwise, this was an outstanding article! The Oxford comma rules. Please, correct me if I am wrong in correcting you!

  • Cynthia Olen says:

    I always use an Oxford comma. My profs at university would have beat me over the head with the OED otherwise. In fact, a sentence that doesn’t use one sometimes trips me up, forcing me to read it again for clarity.

  • Katharine says:

    I’d fire any publisher that removed my serial comma. I don’t have time to go over all their editing to find all the rest of the errors they might edit in.

  • Beth Sullivan says:

    Hurray! I almost always use the Oxford comma for all the reasons mentioned.

  • Mollie says:

    I’m in favour of it all the time. The writer may not realise when ambiguity would arise for the reader (the reader is always the side who perceives the ambiguity, since the writer always knows what he “meant” but doesn’t know how the reader will hear his words), so the onus is on the writer to dispel as much potential ambiguity as possible. And, like another commenter said, “it’s easier to use a consistent rule than to parse degrees of ambiguity”. That should be the defining argument, imo.

  • James says:

    “grammar nerds, Strunk & White and those who follow the infamous Chicago vs. AP style debate.”

    You are a monster…

  • Christine says:

    Good writing is painfully clear and precise, certainly the Oxford comma!

  • Graham Storrs says:

    OK, OK, I’ll use it already!

  • Fred says:

    ‘“Who gives a $#%& about an Oxford comma?”
    grammar nerds, Strunk & White and those who follow the infamous Chicago vs. AP style debate.’

    In an article about the need for the Oxford comma (an argument I fully agree with), I notice that the very first list you wrote doesn’t include one! Shouldn’t there be a comma after “Shrunk & White”?

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