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Omit That Oxford Comma at Your Peril

Democrats and Republicans. Cubs fans and Cards (or White Sox) fans. Oxford comma devotees and detractors. Is that how it is in your workplace?

Well, score one for the Oxford comma contingent. As Rex Gradeless put it in the May issue of The Public Servant, newsletter of the ISBA Government Lawyers Committee, a "recent federal appellate court decision may put the cost of a single missing comma at $10 million." Gradeless reminds us that the Oxford comma is "placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually 'and' or 'or') in a series of three or more terms. For example, a list of three Illinois counties might be punctuated either as 'Hardin, Pope, and Calhoun' (with the Oxford comma), or as 'Hardin, Pope and Calhoun' (without the Oxford comma)."

In the case in question, Maine truck farmers argued that they were included in a statute requiring overtime payments, while the Oakhurst Dairy argued they were excluded. The overtime statute excluded employees involved in "[t]he canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of [food products]."

"The drivers contended that this exception to the overtime law did not apply to them because the exception refers to the single activity of 'packing,' whether the 'packing' is for 'shipment' or for 'distribution,'" Gradeless wrote. But the dairy argued "the disputed words refer to two distinct exempt activities, with the first being 'packing for shipment' and the second being 'distribution.' Because the delivery drivers engage in distribution, the exception to the overtime law applies and the employees are not entitled to overtime pay."

The Maine Appellate Court "found there was enough ambiguity created by the missing Oxford comma that the court had to consider the legislative intent of Maine's overtime law," which it construed to favor the drivers - this "even though Maine's Legislative Drafting Manual expressly instructs that 'when drafting Maine law or rules, don't use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series'" (the manual also warns to "be careful if an item in the series is modified").

 What do Illinois drafting guidelines say about Oxford commas? Find out in the July Illinois Bar Journal.

Posted on July 12, 2017 by Mark S. Mathewson
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Member Comments (3)

I was taught to use the Oxford Comma (although I never knew it had a name). I always thought it was clearer. Over the past 20 years, however, I seem to be in the minority. I may use this article to push my opinion! The only time I do not use it is when the conjunction is an ampersand ("&"). I got that from the many law firms that eliminate the last comma. Very interesting!

I was always taught the Oxford comma was optional when I wrote professionally for trade magazine which used the AP Style guide. May need to re-think it.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, Rule 2: "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

Thus write,
red, white, and blue
gold, silver, or copper
He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents."