“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
This joke has long been used as an example by language students in support of the Oxford comma. Despite years of arguing in classrooms and on the internet, some people still do not recognize the importance of this punctuation.
Frequently used to separate items in a series, the Oxford comma is placed after the second-to-last word in a series and is frequently followed by a conjunction. In this article, ironically, I will not be using this precious piece of punctuation because it does not fit under the umbrella of Associated Press style guidelines. AP style prefers that journalists do not use the Oxford comma unless deemed absolutely necessary.
For precisely that reason, it can sometimes be easy to lose track of what some newspapers are really trying to say. It can be difficult to tell the difference between items in a series and an aside, a phrase not unlike this one which is set apart with a comma.
“I invited strippers, JFK and the Pope,” one version of a popular joke goes. Without the Oxford comma, the sentence implies that JFK and the Pope are the strippers and that the phrase “JFK and the Pope” is an aside.
Sometimes, though, the omission of the Oxford comma results in more than just a funny misunderstanding. A $10 million class-action lawsuit began with a law that didn’t use the infamous Oxford comma.
The state of Maine has a law that says workers involved in “storing, packing for shipment or distribution of agricultural produce” should not receive overtime pay. Because of the lack of a comma after “shipment,” it is unclear whether the intent of the law is to omit workers involved with packing for shipment, and workers involved with distribution of produce, or if it intends to omit workers involved in packing produce for shipment as well as those who distribute produce.
According to NPR, truck driver Chris O’Connor hired a lawyer and challenged the fact that he and about 75 other drivers should have earned overtime pay because there was no comma.
In March, a judge decided the state’s law was ambiguous and allowed the case to proceed.
Surprisingly, the absence of the Oxford comma was not an accident in this case. The state of Maine’s legal style guide dictates against its use in legislation, stating “although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series.”
Clearly, commas aren’t so trivial after all. In an essay, its inclusion may not be vital because nothing is at stake. When it comes to legislation, however, it can make a big difference. Including an Oxford comma has never hurt anyone, but leaving it out can cause a lot of damage — about $10 million worth.