If you’re not particularly passionate about grammar, you may be surprised to see your social feeds flooded with news stories about how a single comma (or lack of) cost a Maine dairy a class-action lawsuit – and an estimated $10 million in overtime pay. But not me. I was educated by Youngstown nuns and did a brief stint in academia before converting to agency life. For me, the Comma Wars are familiar and fresh. No punctuation mark sparks as brutal a debate as the Oxford comma – with no shortage of memes to prove it. Before I lose you entirely, allow me to explain.
What the heck is an Oxford comma?
The Oxford (or serial) comma is the second comma in a series of three or more items. One of the most popular examples touted by Oxford comma supporters is:
We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.
Without the Oxford comma, the sentence reads:
We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
This is where things get a little hairy (no pun intended). In the second version, you could read “JFK and Stalin” as the names of the strippers. Eek. Hence, grammar purists insist the Oxford comma is needed for clarity. (Side note: You gotta see how a beautiful genius at Business Insider utterly debunked this theory.)
Surely people don’t really care that much about a comma, you may be thinking. Ah, but we do. Check out this article from The Onion that nails the bitter allegiances. Or, just follow the Oxford Comma on Twitter like 13 thousand other people do. For an arguably extraneous piece of punctuation, the Oxford comma has a decent sense of humor.
So…about that court case?
Of course, the most convincing proof that people care about the Oxford comma is the fact that it recently single-handedly decided a labor dispute. In Maine, delivery drivers sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been allegedly denied. The company claimed the drivers fell under a state exemption that was penned – much to the dairy’s misfortune – without an Oxford comma, creating enough ambiguity for the drivers to make their claim. You can read the full 29-page court decision, but here’s the sentence in question. As written, distributing does not fall under Maine’s list of exemptions for overpay.
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.
Without the Oxford comma, “packing for shipment or distribution” can be read as one unit with “packing” as the action. Since the drivers just deliver and never pack, they made their case.
You should care about the Oxford comma, too
I was excited to see blue collar workers win (WhiteSpace has a history with truckers, after all), but as a copy director, my heart sank. WhiteSpace does not use the Oxford comma unless it’s absolutely necessary for clarity. Neither does the AP Style Guide, the set of standards used by most news outlets and defaulted to by many businesses. Chances are, your company also sides with AP. Why? Because our industry, along with the media, values brevity. Every word and every punctuation mark takes up space and causes your audience to spend more time with your message. And messaging needs to be as easy and fast to digest as possible. Unless the sentence you’re writing is truly ambiguous without the Oxford comma – like Maine’s overtime exemption – you simply don’t need it.
But it’s bigger than that. As marketers, we understand that our industry is constantly changing. Technology is developing more rapidly than we can follow. And guess what – language is also evolving. The Oxford comma first became standard around the turn of the century…the 20th century, that is. We have to be willing to evolve, too, or we might just lose our audience.
Need some master grammarians (and pretty killer content writers) to help craft your message? Let us know.
What’s your stance on the Oxford comma? Love it or leave it? Tell us in the comments below!
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