The ‘Oxford comma’ needs thought, care, and a sober approach

There was much excitement last month about the case of the Maine dairy drivers who won overtime on a grammatical technicality.

If you haven’t read about it, the case hinged on an ‘Oxford comma’, or rather the lack of one. There was a list of activities that were not eligible for overtime, at the end of which was “…packing for shipment or distribution of:”.

The case was won because there was no comma between ‘shipment’ and ‘or’, suggesting it was all one activity.

Supporters of the Oxford comma will be delighted with this outcome. Supporters of its omission will still claim it is unnecessary.

Let us bring a certain rationality to the argument, by remembering that the Oxford comma is there as a tool to make sense of a list. Whether or not to use it depends on context.

Let’s take a short list: “I like sausages, eggs, and chips.” Really? You just trip over it. It sounds like separate side orders.

“I like sausages, eggs and chips”. Unadorned, elegant, no comma required.

“I like sausages, eggs cooked sunny side up with a little salt and pepper and chips with their skins left on.” Oh, Oxford comma, wherefore art thou to make sense of this?

So, for me, there isn’t a yes and no, just a time and a place. I prefer an Oxford comma on longwinded lists, but not on brief ones.

Even a longer final item requires one in my opinion.

By the way, the court in Maine got it wrong. There was no ‘and’ before ‘packing’ in the words “…marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:”, so the ‘or’ was therefore required to make grammatical sense of the list. It was two activities, comma or no comma. Case lost.

Jeremy is the Oxford Word Barber.

See how I work on my portfolio page.

From the editor:

This seems like a great excuse to share Vampire Weekend’s video for Oxford Comma, which was directed by the wonderful Richard Ayoade. Heads-up, the first line of this song is ‘who give a f*ck about an Oxford comma’ – so consider this not safe for work.

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