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Nothing ignites fire in the gut of righteous grammar geeks more than the serial—aka Oxford—comma.
Why is that?
Maybe you heard about the Maine dairy-truck drivers’ recent legal victory that hinged on a comma—actually, the lack of a comma. The truck drivers won an appeal against their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, regarding overtime pay. Last week Oakhurst settled the case and paid up.
What’s a serial/Oxford comma? It’s the final comma in a list of things in a sentence. As in:
Marketers love clever creative, remarkable ROI, and respect.
The Oxford comma is that comma after “ROI.”
Here’s a well-known explanation of how the Oxford comma adds critical clarity:
One Morning in Maine
The Maine dairy story is a convoluted story, as most law-related stories are. Here are the basics:
- In 2014, three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay owed to them for deliveries they’d made.
- Oakhurst Dairy said NOPE, citing a law that lists distribution of dairy products as one of the activities ineligible for overtime pay.
- Maine state law at the time stated that workers are not entitled to overtime pay for: “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.”
- Aha…! the lawyer for the truck drivers said.
- Without a comma after “shipment,” it’s the packing “for shipment or distribution” that’s not eligible for overtime—not the distribution itself. Only with a comma would “distribution” have been included as one of the series of activities ineligible for overtime.
- So: the law does not apply to the deliveries the drivers made. Pay up, Oakhurst.
- The court (the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit) agreed—and took 29 pages to say as much. Oxford comma enthusiasts high-fived!
- Earlier this month, Oakhurst Dairy settled, agreeing to pay $5 million to the drivers.
The case of the dairy-truck drivers’ comma has got several things going for it, says former New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris.
It’s got a David-and-Goliath showdown between the little guys and the corporate overlord.
It’s got “guys driving around in trucks with copies of Strunk & White in the glove box.”
And, of course, it’s… wait for it… got milk.
But it’s also got something else we love: It’s got people arguing over grammar.
People love love looooove to argue over grammar.
And we especially love to argue over the polarizing Oxford comma: defended as a beacon of clarity, derided as an unnecessary pest.
Why does something as pedantic and ordinary as grammar ignite raging debate—both in Maine and in the rest of world? Even when there isn’t actual money at stake?
And more broadly: Why do some of us love to correct the grammar of others? Love to sharpen our grammar chops on the soft underbelly of those unfortunates who might use literally to mean figuratively? Who misspell lose as loose?
Maybe it has something to do with that word “rules” when it’s paired with “grammar”: Grammar rules seem strict, impenetrable, unyielding.
Some grammar rules are more like laws or statutes—breaking them quickly creates anarchy: “The U.S. Grammar Guild Monday announced that no more will traditional grammar rules English follow. Instead there will a new form of organizing sentences be.” (The Onion)
But others are more open to interpretation: Splitting infinitives (to boldly go is a famous one).
Ending a sentence with a preposition.
Using “they” as a singular pronoun.
And the serial/Oxford comma.
Grammarians are thought of as judgy, humorless souls.
The type to correct you silently at a lunch counter when you’re ordering a sandwich. Many find work as editors or copyeditors.
But most grammar sticklers I know come at it less based in judgment than in something more generous: They want to help us all be understood.
The editor is often silent and invisible, grafting weak sentences and buttressing feeble structure into something more hearty and lasting. They don’t get the credit for the bounty or the beauty, either: That glory lands squarely on the needy writer.
So if we think of grammar less as rules and more as a handy set of guidelines for clear communication, then grammar works for us—not against us. Like the best editors.
Grammar guidelines are often not hard-and-fast—because language is a living, changing thing.
Language is constantly on the go, always up for a joy ride to god knows where….
“Grammar rules” stirs up in the righteous a feeling of right and wrong, of needing to put a stake in the ground, to polarize language: Black and white. Off and on. Yes and no. Smart and stupid.
Again, occasionally it really matters (overtime or no overtime). But often it just doesn’t.
Writing—like life—is often experienced more richly in its nuances. Nuance is the Petri dish for language—because language evolves when all of us collectively search for a word that captures a meaning better than some other word (froyo, humblebrag. truther.)
So let’s get back to the original question:
Why do we enjoy a solid grammar throwdown, anyway?
Because grammar rules are often not really rules.
And maybe because grammar is a debate we feel entitled to have an opinion on. (On which we feel entitled to have an opinion? You do you.)
We might not be able to affect Net Neutrality (a phrase added to the dictionary in 2017, bee tee dubs).
We feel powerless about Russian meddling.
The world can be a dark and horrifying place.
But hold. Up. Just. One. Hot. Second!
WE SURE AS HELL AREN’T GOING TO LET THAT LACK OF A COMMA SLIP BY.
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Carla Johnson says
Why do we love to argue over grammar? Because it’s something we all use, in some fashion. Even not using it is using it. Physics? Nope. People clearly know when they’re out of their league. Neuroscience? Law? Fergetaboughit. Well, it may be the lawyers with whom we argue the most about grammar. And comprehension. Maybe that’s another Annarchy post.
Every time I omit an Oxford comma I will now have an image of Stalin with pasties in my head. That’s a picture that definitely paints WAY MORE than 1,000 words.
Ann Handley says
Good point, Carla…! And STALIN PASTIES: You’re welcome!
Carl Lum says
Yup, Stalin with pasties. That’s indelible and should end this argument once and for all. Who could *possibly* eschew the Oxford Comma after this?
Fugettaboutit, is the spelling, just so you know. It’s a NY thing. I’m sure I did something grammatically wrong here, but whatevs.
So, shall we chat about the pronunciation mark ‘semicolon’? I hear it’s an endangered species; seriously, my fiend. ((:
Otto Dial says
A semicolon, the PUNCTUATION mark, is used between two SENTENCES that are closely related—parallel, as it were. DRM’s jokey example is misused; the second part is not grammatically complete as a sentence.
Douglas Burdett says
Henceforth I will not be able to mentally disassociate the Oxford comma from Joseph Stalin’s pasties.
Ann Handley says
I dare you to try.
Mark Simeon says
lol “… to mentally disassociate the Oxford comma …” — split infinitives are indeed hard to avoid 😉 But I digress.
Join me as I venture down the rabbit hole. I jumped in after Chuck Todd (MSNBC/Meet The Press Daily) teased his viewers to look up “Oxford comma” after reporting on Mike Pompeo’s admonishment to his staff on the correct use of commas. Todd mocked it, since there appear to be many more important things to worry about, but it’s instructive, given the power of words, and the need to wield such power wisely. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
If you’re in the rabbit hole with me, ponder this. Did you know:
– “Grammarian” has it’s origins in magic? Originally defined as “a learned man; wise man; person who knows Latin; magician ..” https://www.dictionary.com/browse/grammarian
– “abra cadabra” is said to translate as “I speak, therefore I create” https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/2015/07/are-the-origins-of-abracadabra-jewish/
Learned men (and women) — yes, mostly lawyers — use language to, quite literally (not figuratively), create new life. Many of us laughed at the notion that “Corporations are people too” but it’s no joke. With the ability to live forever, and powers limited only by what is written in their Charters (themselves formed by artfully stringing together words correctly “spelled”) — corporations are indeed alive, and far more powerful than most of us mere mortals.
Kinda makes you think, in a world where powerful people create “alternative facts” with their own choice of words, speaking into existence new truths that leave the rest of us scratching our heads, and wondering, “wait — what the hell is happening?”
Gotta get back to work. Tip your server. I’m here all week 😉
William B., Amarillo says
>> “Grammarian” has it’s origins in magic? … ” <<
Always expand your contractions, at least mentally, before committing them to paper / e-mal / whatever. Your statement is equivalent to: “Grammarian” has it is origins in magic? … " On a post about grammar? Why, why, why?
Bruce Sher says
On pointy and humorous to boot.
love your books and Blog . firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ann Handley says
Thanks, Bruce! I appreciate you swinging by!
Ummm, isn’t it:
YOUR swinging by?
From former English teacher
mike seckerson says
Yes, I thought so.
Doug Kessler says
I’ve been grudgingly dragged into using the Oxford comma after a lifetime of using the Cambridge lack-of-comma. It makes me uncomfortable, self-conscious, and sad.
The Stalin/Stripper thing is such an edge use case and we pay a high price for protecting against it.
For one thing: toner.
Okay, a single, totally superfluous comma doesn’t take up much toner on its own but we’re talking trillions. That’s the carbon footprint of Ecuador every 6 weeks. (Admittedly, Ecuadorians live very green lives). (Only part of that is by choice). (But anyway:)
I’ve written for, what, 30 years and never once had my lack of ‘luxury comma’ lead to misinterpretation.
But the “clients” have their “style guides” and my “agency” needs “money” for “foosball table maintenance” and “workers” so Oxford it is.
Anyway: great, smart, and funny post. Stalin.
Ann Handley says
I will give you an “the woods are lovely, dark and deep” Robert Frost exclusion. But only because Mary Norris does.
David Schach says
I pray that nobody prints the comments here because all those superfluous quotation marks/inverted commas (sSee, you ARE good at using extra commas!) are going to use the carbon footprint of the entire Americas in toner!
Ann Handley says
LOL… true true.
Ben Opsahl says
I remember that case. Got into a heated argument, of course. I argued that the lack of “and” actually made the sentence unambiguous. I hadn’t seen an article that covered this aspect until the one from the New Yorker you linked:
“To the defendant’s contention that the series, in order to support the drivers’ reading, would have to contain a conjunction—“and”—before “packing,” the drivers, citing Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner, said that the missing “and” was an instance of the rhetorical device called “asyndeton,” defined as “the omission or absence of a conjunction between parts of a sentence.””
Interesting. I concede!
Ann Handley says
See also: This is one reason (or many reasons) why I’m not a lawyer.
Gary Bloomer says
Insightful stuff, Ann for sure. Why do we argue over grammar? Let’s not.
Instead, let’s simply embrace the fact that there those people who, quite rightly, use the Oxford/serial comma to separate out items in a list—items that deserve to stand as single entities, and that there are those who, grammatically, are simply wrong.
And cue the haters …
In the Frost example above [Ann], the woods are dark and deep, but with a comma, they become dark, and deep, so the meaning shifts although only slightly for sure: the distinction though is something that matters.
Ann Handley says
Alan Belniak says
And nary a mention of “Eats, shoots and leaves” – perhaps too easy?
Wonderful post, Ann.
Ann Handley says
LOL and thanks, friend! I appreciate you swinging by!
People love the JFK/Stalin stripper example. It’s hilarious. I get it. But here’s the thing. The Oxford comma CREATES the exact same confusion if the first noun in the string changes. Another famous example:
I want to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
Without the Oxford comma, it reads as though this author has some pretty impressive parents. But look what happens when “parents” becomes “mother.”
I want to thank my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.
Now, the Oxford comma is to blame for the same problem! The Oxford comma makes it read as though the mother IS Ayn Rand. Without it, this sentence would be much clearer.
Language evolves. Let’s not hold onto the Oxford comma just because we learned about it in grade school. Take it case by case and use the grammar that makes your writing the most readable.
Ann Handley says
Annie! What a great example. Thank you.
Although…. in that example, I might reword the sentence to read: “I want to thank Ayn Rand, God, and my mother.”
Your point is a good one, though: “Take it case by case and use the grammar that makes your writing the most readable.” (HIGH-FIVE!)
I am Team Oxford, philosophically. But in practice I am Team Reader.
Team Reader all day!
I remember being told how important this comma was in my business law classes back in the 1970’s. The legal brief was a contested will that omitted the comma. The parent wanted his children to share in the estate equally but without the comma, it changed the distribution. It went to court and the court said without the comma, the last two siblings had to share what the other siblings each got individually. So it was 1, 1, 1, half and half. We went over a number of scenarios similar to that (and more relevant to business law) after that initial case. I have never forgotten that. I sometimes have to argue for the comma. I’m glad to see that it has come back into favor.
David K says
I’m more of a Shatner comma—or even a Walken comma fan, myself.
Sean McGown says
Yes, I can see why this could be an issue and I’m flexible enough to ask what the editing department I’m working for at the time recognizes as the correct way. However, because I am heavily involved with editing and mucking around in websites all day, I thought of something that makes me crazier. I don’t think anybody has mentioned the locust-like appearance of &rquo; vs ’, & instead of &, %20 instead of a space, and any other number of HTML entities that makes the act of simply displaying punctionation of any kind a Battan Death March across different websites. Surely, the real hot topic here is UTF-8 v ISO-8859 Western. Or not.
I hesitate to say much more. I might make a mistake (typing, grammar, punctuation).
Blame it on the insomnia.
Yes, I’m a few years late, but I loved your explanation! I linked to it from my brand new blog http://www.rabbittrailreport.com (from the about page). Thanks so much for the chuckle!
Jeneen Hobby says
You need a comma after “comma” in the title of your article.
Lyn C says
I’m 72 and I never learnt about the Oxford comma at school; but then I only went to the ninth grade. I do remember my 3rd grade teacher (Mrs Heron) teaching us easy ways to remember how to spell certain words…
stationery – papER
stationary – a cAR which has stopped
principal – head of school is your PAL
peace – peace is good for my EArs
piece – I think I shall have a piece of PIE
If we were doing spelling, she had a marvelous way of making us remember the difference between hoping and hopping. If we got it wrong, she would take us out into the playground and make us hop around while saying, “I’m hoping I can soon stop hopping.”
Oh, and she just about blew a gasket if we wrote in a composition, “All of a sudden.” She would say, “You can’t have half of a sudden, therefore you can’t have all of a sudden. The word is suddenly.”
Don’t remember many of my teachers with affection, but I do with Mrs Heron 😀
As per my father regarding the importance of the comma…
What’s that in the road ahead?
What’s that in the road, ahead?
What’s for dinner tonight mother?
What’s for dinner tonight, mother?