Why I'm over the Oxford comma

It's time for a field trip to one of grammar's "third rails" - the question of whether or not to use a serial (or Oxford) comma. On one side, fierce partisans of the serial comma, who insist that it must routinely be used to repel the scourge of ambiguity; on the other, folks who don't much care. In the middle, growing increasingly weary of the controversy? Me. And here you are, stuck in the middle with me.

Let's begin with a quick refresher for the busy. Commas signal the reader to pause; they are a type of punctuation known as a "stop." Bryan Garner describes the comma as the "least emphatic" but most widely used punctuation mark, identifying nine distinct uses. We will leave eight of them for another day.

Today's focus is the use of the comma to separate items in a list: "Karin writes obsessively about apostrophes, colons, and commas." See that? The first two commas are uncontroversial. But the comma separating the last and the next-to-last words (colons and commas) is the serial (or Oxford) comma.

You may be forgiven for thinking, "Seriously? People throw down over that?" Indeed they do. I suspect part of the problem is that there are two schools of thought on the point, and most of us are partial to the culture into which our well-meaning primary school English teachers initiated us. In my case, that's the demimonde of the libertine Associated Press Stylebook, which held (and still holds) that no serial comma is required if no ambiguity results - a rule that, in my view, affords appropriate latitude to the writer's judgment and respect for the reader's common sense. (Also, because I learned that a comma in a list meant "and," putting a comma before "and" still feels like a hiccup even after years of practice.)

But those who have imbibed the serial-comma Kool-Aid (including Garner, H.W. Fowler, Karen Elizabeth Gordon and the Chicago Manual of Style) clamor for ubiquitous serial commas, especially in legal writing where ambiguity is anathema. As Garner observes, "Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it's easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will[.]" A fair point, I suppose, if you're also the kind of person who walks around under an umbrella in case it might rain.

But. Part of my job as columnist is to observe writing trends, and it appears to me that the serial comma is ascendant. In 2014 an internet poll found 57 percent of respondents favored the serial comma, with only 43 percent favoring the absence thereof. (The serial-comma proponents also rated their own grammar as excellent, which should tell you something.) AP Stylists, fashion is leaving us behind. Making a habit of using the serial comma is probably worthwhile, because when you need it, you really need it.

For example, every so often a court delivers an opinion addressing comma usage, and the internet goes wild. The latest candidate is a First Circuit opinion involving a Maine dairy that didn't pay overtime to its delivery drivers, believing it was exempt because Maine's relevant statute exempted from overtime "[t]he canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) [a]gricultural produce; (2) [m]eat and fish products; and (3) [p]erishable foods."

Can you guess what happened next? The drivers said, "we're not involved in the packing of milk, so we deserve overtime." Oakhurst Dairy said, "no you don't, because you're involved in the distribution of milk." The district court granted summary judgment to the dairy because Maine's legislative drafting manual expressly instructs drafters not to use a serial comma (!) but the First Circuit reversed, finding ambiguity when the statute was construed as a whole, because it could be packing for shipment, or it could be packing for distribution, or it could just be distribution-who knew?

Serial comma partisans claimed victory. I have a different, simpler takeaway, which I will offer to you here:

Show me a sentence that needs a serial comma for clarification, and I will show you a badly written sentence.

Not sure? Watch this:

This law does not apply to the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, distribution or packing for shipment of: (1) agricultural produce; (2) meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods.

"OMG!" you may be thinking. "That's still a crappy sentence, but she changed up the order of the words and made the ambiguity disappear. Can she do that?"

Yes-because I am a writer. And you are too. Again:

I would like to thank Mother Teresa, the Pope and my parents.

And again:

My heroes are JFK, Stalin and the strippers.

Enough. I hope you'll now understand why, in the Ciano Manual of Style, a serial comma is like a safety pin: in a pinch, it'll fix a sentence malfunction, but the better practice is to take the sentence apart and fix it for real. If you're ready to be done with the serial-comma kulturkampf, try it yourself and see what you think.

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Andrea Cammelleri was convicted of parking her pickup truck on the street outside her home in West Jefferson, Ohio, for more than 24 hours. She appealed, arguing the truck was not a "motor vehicle camper." The trial court thought it obvious that the missing comma between "motor vehicle" and "camper" was a typographical error. Not so much the appeals court, which reversed her conviction.

Published: Wed, May 03, 2017

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