You can tell you are in the presence of grammar nerds when the phrase “Oxford comma” can touch off long-winded discussions, debates, and even heated exchanges that last into the wee hours.
The term refers to the serial comma placed before the coordinating conjunction (most commonly and) in a series of three or more terms.
I make my living parsing words and keeping up with the ever-changing nature, character, and protocol of the English language. And, for many years I have found it frustrating that book publishers insist on the use of the serial comma while most newspapers and magazines avoid it.
A $10 million comma
While most of the reading public could care less, the importance of placement and usage of commas came to light the past few months in a couple ways that are amusing. Yet, they underscore the vital nature of punctuation.
The first appeared in a New York Times story in mid-March about a $10 million dollar ruling involved Maine milk-truck drivers who won an appeal against their employer regarding overtime pay.
Maine law says workers aren’t entitled to overtime pay for various activities, including packing for shipment or distribution of perishable foods. The drivers argued since they don’t pack food for shipment or distribution—only deliver it—that exemption doesn’t apply to them.
The judge hearing the case agreed. While I can imagine this case going to a higher court, it underscores how important that pesky little comma can be.
The other appeared about a month ago in the comic strip, Pearls Before Swine. Creator Stephen Pastis regularly reels off punctuation puns or other takeoffs that are hilarious.
The recent one that had me chuckling involved a character saying it was “no punctuation day” in Pearls. Another asked who needs punctuation and suggested they relax and play basketball with his Uncle Joe.
Then he turned and said, “Shoot Uncle Joe.” In the final panel, with his uncle lying on the ground and a gun in the other character’s hand, he added, “Punctuation is rather important.”
For clarity’s sake
More recently, I saw a discussion on a Linked In post about the serial comma. In it, the originator mentioned her preference for consistent use of the comma.
Not surprisingly, that stirred a number of comments. One of the most colorful said, “When I see a serial comma in a sentence, I feel as though someone dropped a big pile of dog droppings in there for me to dodge.”
Another echoed, “Of course some sentences need serial commas for clarity, but using them where they aren’t necessary slows down reading.”
The most level-headed reaction came from the participant who said, “I have never understood the absolutist positions, one way or the other. If the comma enhances clarity and/or flow, use it. If not, don’t. Can’t that be a rule?”
While I hate to get stuck in an absolutist camp, I tend to favor the comma’s use. A reason why surfaced in a manuscript I’m currently editing for a major publisher.
In it, the author wrote, “Affairs lead to broken marriages and children who have to split their holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions between different houses.”
Because with books, the Chicago Manual of Style prevails, there was no question about placing a comma after “birthdays.” However, after years of journalism experience, I can say with confidence that many print journalists would have left it out because of the “no comma” rule.
The loser would be clarity. Though small, there is still a subtle distinction between two different terms. Long live the serial comma!
An experienced freelance writer, co-author and book editor, Ken Walker edits blogs for several contributors to Church Central and has coached various bloggers for the site. A member of the Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network), he has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 50 books. You can see samples of his work or ask about his services as a writing coach by going to http://www.KenWalkerWriter.com or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org