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The Oxford or serial comma is the comma that separates the conjunction (such as or, and) from the last item on a list.
Furious controversies have erupted over this small punctuation mark. Millions of worthy people maintain that the Oxford comma is a necessity in every list. Millions of other worthy people claim that it is an excessive, irrelevant smudge on the paper. Who is correct? Disputes may rage on, but $10 million is a lot to pay for the lack of one comma.  

Let’s look at some examples and see how they change sentence meanings. In the sentence 
Please buy pens, pencils and paper clips, it does not matter whether there is a comma after pencils.
Now let’s look at:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Paul McCartney and Merle Haggard. Wow! That’s what I call having illustrious ancestors. But is that what the writer meant?  Writing This book is dedicated to my parents, Paul McCartney, and Merle Haggard clarifies the situation.

Now let’s see what happens when money is at stake.

In the sentence, I leave my estate to my children, Henry, Susan, Alice and John. the situation is ambiguous. Do Alice and John split a third, or does each child receive a fourth of the estate? Writing I leave my estate to my children, Henry, Susan, Alice, and John reduces the likelihood of a lawsuit.

In a recent Maine lawsuit, a group of drivers sought $10 million in overtime pay on the basis of the following law, which stated that employers are exempt from paying overtime wages to employees who participate in:
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.

So it is clear that the people who pack the food do not get overtime. However, the law says packing for shipment or distribution. This phrase was the basis of the lawsuit. 

Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them? The drivers said that the core of the phrase was packing. The trucking company said that the phrase was intended to include distribution so they did not have to pay overtime to drivers.

If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor. It reversed a lower court decision. The drivers won their overtime pay and Oxford comma defenders rejoiced.
“That comma would have sunk our ship,” David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, said in an interview with the New York Times.

Ironically, the language in the law followed guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which specifically instructs lawmakers not to use the Oxford comma. Don’t write “trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers,” it says — instead, write “trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers.” This thinking is fine as long as you are listing a bunch of items. But when more sophisticated intent exists, the Oxford comma is a beacon of clarity. Somehow I suspect that manual is about to be revised.

This is not the first – or the last – time that omitting an Oxford commas has had cash consequences. Legal history is replete with cases in which a comma made all the difference, like a $1 million dispute between Canadian companies in 2006 or a very costly insertion of a comma in an 1872 tariff law.

So what’s the answer? Is the Oxford comma mandatory? The answer is, “it depends”. If you’re buying pens and paper clips, or apples and bananas, the lack of the comma is harmless. But, as we have seen, omitting the Oxford comma can be costly. That is why, when I teach business writing and email effectiveness, I advise writers to opt in favor of the Oxford comma. If you use the Oxford comma, the worst case is that you'll have a comma you could have done without. And if you do not use it ... well, ask the owners of Oakhurst Dairy, the company that lost the overtime lawsuit. 

 ©2017 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved

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  • Taught by a professional writer. +

    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
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    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
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