Why you should give a **** about an Oxford comma
Written by Nick Parkhouse on 10/03/20
“Who gives a **** about an Oxford comma? I’ve seen those English dramas too; they’re cruel.”
Vampire Weekend, Oxford Comma
Back in 2008, New York indie-rock band Vampire Weekend burst onto the scene in the UK with their acclaimed, eponymously titled debut album. The third single from the album was a catchy, radio-friendly anthem in which the band seemed to question the existence of a little-known piece of English punctuation: the Oxford comma.
Lead singer Ezra Koenig told Vanity Fair how he got the inspiration for the song.
“I have a complicated relationship with grammar…[I] spent a year teaching eighth-grade English in Brooklyn and, when you spend so much time trying to get kids to write in Standard American English, you’re bound to start questioning the importance.
“I first came across the Oxford comma on Facebook. There was a group at Columbia called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford comma. I didn’t think about it too much but, a few months later while sitting at a piano at my parents’ house, I started writing the song and the first thing that came out was ‘who gives a **** about an Oxford comma?”
Well, it’s a good question. Should you care?
All your diction, dripping with disdain
So, what is an Oxford comma? Simply, it’s the final comma in a list of things.
- I have a pension, some Premium Bonds, and an ISA.
Lots of style guides will tell you that using an Oxford comma is a choice and using it (or not) is entirely up to you.
A lot of the time, this is true. Take the sentence above. If you removed the Oxford comma, it would still make sense to anyone who read it:
- I have a pension, some Premium Bonds and an ISA.
Simple. So why should you bother with it?
If there’s any other way to spell the word, it’s fine by me
Problems can arise if you decide not to use an Oxford comma. Leaving it out can cause some odd misunderstandings. Imagine you hear a Hollywood star say this in their Oscar acceptance speech:
- “I’d like to thank my parents, Tom Cruise and Lady Gaga.”
Written this way, this suggests that the star has quite the pair of A-list parents and that the stars of Mission Impossible and A Star Is Born had an unknown child, well, some time ago.
Now put the Oxford comma back.
- “I’d like to thank my parents, Tom Cruise, and Lady Gaga”.
Much better. Now the acceptance speech is acknowledging the contribution of the correct four people.
Of course, there are ways around this:
- “I’d like to thank Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga and my parents.”
No Oxford comma, clear meaning.
For me, there seems to be no particular reason not to use an Oxford comma. Sure, there are cases such as the example above where you don’t need it. But there are also cases when you do. So, why not provide additional clarification, and make it entirely clear what it is you’re trying to say?
Why would you lie ’bout anything at all?
You might think that this entire debate is just a silly grammar issue where a writer reinforces something your primary school teacher told you thirty years ago.
Like Vampire Weekend say: who gives a ****?
Well, back in 2017, the delivery drivers of Oakhurst Dairy in Maine very much did.
Back then, the state law of Maine said that the following activities do not count for overtime pay:
“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.”
In court, the drivers argued that due to a lack of a comma between ‘packing for shipment’ and ‘or distribution’, the law referred to the single activity of ‘packing’, not to ‘packing’ and ‘distribution’ as two separate activities.
As that the drivers distributed – but did not pack – the goods, this made them eligible for overtime pay.
In an appeal, Circuit judge David J Barron wrote:
“We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption”
And the result? The dairy company in Portland agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers.
Had there been a comma after ‘shipment’ the meaning would have been clear. David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, stated it plainly in an interview: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”
He always tells the truth
I’m not suggesting for a moment that a bit of stray punctuation is going to cost your business $5 million. Saying that, the owners of Oakhurst Dairy probably thought the same.
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