Wordplay is a blog project featuring posts from students enrolled in ENG 320 Grammar and Linguistics (Fall 2019)

Oxford Comma Use for All

by Mattie Duzik

Using a comma is a very important little piece of punctuation. A comma is that tiny pause we hear and take when speaking or reading.  Commas break up clauses, and they create much better “flow” throughout a sentence. There is one particular comma that is somewhat controversial, but it shouldn’t be.

Let’s look at the Oxford comma.

Learn it.

Live it.

Love it.

The Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is used before the conjunction when listing three or more objects. Using a comma creates a separation between the items. The Oxford comma is used for mainly one reason–to erase any amount of ambiguity. The ambiguity of a sentence, as shown in the example above, aren’t just simple misinterpretations, but it can also have legal implications. For example, read this sentence:

She brought candy gifts and prizes.

Photo by Ann Hadley

Now let’s add a comma.

She brought candy, gifts and prizes.

We can read this sentence as she brought candy, which were gifts and prizes. There are two items that fall under one category.

Now we will move the comma around.

She brought candy gifts, and prizes.

She brought gifts that were made of candy. She also brought prizes. There are two items she brought.

Now we add one more comma.

She brought candy, gifts, and prizes.

We can read this sentence as she brought candy and gifts, and prizes. There are three separate items. This extra comma before “and” is the magical Oxford comma, and it makes a big difference.

The Oxford comma is used religiously in legal writing to make the laws as clear as possible, but sometimes, it doesn’t quite work out. In 2014, a lawsuit was filed against a Maine dairy company for not paying their employees the appropriate amount of overtime. Maine law states that there is time-and-a-half pay for any hours worked over 40, yet there are some exceptions. In the law it stated:

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.

Photo by Know Your Meme

The part that caused the confusion and the overall settlement to the dairy workers is the lack of a comma between “packing for shipment or distribution.” Without the comma, it is unclear whether “distribution” or “packing for” was excluded for the three following categories. Since it was unclear, United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit had to be put into action to declare that the workers were wronged by their employer, and as a result, received five million dollars in compensation. The law was also edited to include a semi-colon to clear up any misconceptions.

The funny thing about the Oxford comma is that its nay-sayers think it’s a waste of time, and it’s just a Band-Aid to cover poorly written sentences. The real waste of time is having to explain the ambiguity caused by the lack of a comma. If you want to be clear in your writing, then the Oxford comma is for you. If you don’t want to be clear in your writing, be prepared to explain and possibly pay out.


References:

Hadley, A. (2019, January 4). The Oxford Comma and Why We Argue Over Grammar.     Retrieved from https://annhandley.com/oxford-comma/.

Kolln, M., Gray, L. S., & Salvatore, J. (2016). Understanding English Grammar (Tenth). Boston: Pearson.

Press, A. (2018, February 8). Lack of Oxford comma costs Maine dairy company $5 million.                     Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/02/08/oxford-comma-        lawsuit/320944002/.

Staff, W. R. (2018, June 22). The Oxford Comma Controversy. Retrieved from             https://writersrelief.com/2014/07/16/oxford-comma-controversy/.


Mattie Duzik is a junior at CSC majoring in Elementary Education. She is from Craig, Colorado, and would like to teach there. Eventually, she would like to become an athletic director or principal.

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