Comma Wars Rage On

Just when you thought you were safely out of the Oxford (serial) comma melee, it comes back to bite with the force of legal precedence.

Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute”* is the headline for a recent New York Times article.

Folks on either side of this comma issue are firmly (and vocally) supportive. Most news agencies omit the last comma in a series. Most academic style guides require it to be there.

I’m not an advocate of putting commas in all over the place. (Just because you tend to pause doesn’t mean a comma belongs there.) However, I feel the consistent use of the Oxford comma prevents confusion.  Really, in an age of electronic writing, what’s the reason for leaving it out?

No matter what side you are on, this law needed to be written more clearly.  Here is the piece of legislation:

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.

The argument (successful as it turns out) is that “distribution” is part of the “packing for” phrase.  In my not-so-legal mind, that would require a conjunction to appear after “storing.” On the other hand, putting the comma after “shipment” would have saved everyone a whole bunch of time, effort, and money.

This just goes to prove that commas can have a huge impact on life.

*This link might not work if you’ve gone over your free limit of news stories.


19 thoughts on “Comma Wars Rage On

  1. I don’t understand the objection to the Oxford comma. It eliminates ambiguity and there’s no downside to using it. However, the linked article states that the legislation was written according to the drafting manual, which “specifically instructs lawmakers to not use the Oxford comma.” For this reason I would side with the company, even though I disagree with the rule.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Commas make a big difference in mathematics also. Donkeys’ years ago I stood up to my child’s teacher who gave a fail to my daughter for incorrectly answering a maths problem. Daughter had asked my assistance and I explained the difference taking into account the comma in the worded maths problem and she answered (correctly). Because other students in the class answered as though the comma wasn’t there the teacher decided majority rules! After explaining the difference the teacher ‘conceded’ to giving my daughter a pass.
    It was only a 3rd Year maths test but what if it was to do with the Space program, medical procedure, or other important area of research? Commas do matter at times!


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