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.


The Case of the Oxford Comma

The early morning mist swirled around Detective Grammar Smith’s legs as she made her way up the steps of the sprawling veranda to the massive front door. She had been summoned to Anthology Acres, the home of dot-com millionaire Fiver Essay and his wife, Paragraph. It was all about a comma.

“This way, detective,” an ancient question mark showed her into a comfortable but richly decorated parlor. “Can I get you something to drink while you wait?”

“No, thanks.”

Grammar looked around. Everything seemed to be in order, but when she looked out of the large picture window, she could see commas working in the garden and furtively glancing up at the house. Something was making them nervous.

When Fiver and Paragraph, who seemed to be inseparable, finally made it to the parlor, Smith got right down to business.

“We hired an Oxford comma,” Fiver explained. “We thought it would be useful to have an educated comma on the staff, and we put him to work in the library.”

“Then a week ago, he disappeared,” Paragraph finished the story. “We looked all over, but he was gone!”

“Are there coordinating conjunctions employed here?”

“Yes.” Fiver was a bit sheepish. “We try to give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves.”

Grammar interviewed And and Or who worked on the Essay estate.

“I don’t know what happened to the little bugger,” And snarled. “He just didn’t show to pick up that last noun. I had nothing to do with it, copper!”

Unfortunately, the Essay incident was not an isolated case. Grammar had a serious serial comma disappearance problem. She checked with Chicago, MLA, and APA who all agreed the missing commas were a dilemma. AP declared it was all a non-issue.

When a sentence has a series of three or more nouns, phrases, or clauses, a comma often appears at the end of the last element and before the coordinating conjunction. This helps avoid confusion.

Grammar looked high, low, and everywhere in between. Grammar interviewed conjunctions, they proclaimed their innocence, and the case went nowhere. She could continue the search, pass the problem to someone else, or ignore the whole thing.

The Associated Press Stylebook is one major reference that eliminates the last comma before the conjunction.

“News people, always trying to save some space!” Grammar mused, frustrated.

Finally, Grammar tracked down the Essays’ missing comma. It was on a beach in Jamaica bumming around with other Oxford commas.

“Bloody writers!” it declared. “They never can decide if they want us or not!”