The Dickinsonian

In Defense of the Oxford Comma

Drew Kaplan '20, Opinion Editor

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There is a debate amongst writers of the English lan- guage over a certain type of punctuation. Although some consider it to be super uous and providing of no additional clarity to a sentence, I consid- er it to be an important tool of clari cation and good gram- mar. I of course speak of the Oxford comma. Placed both before a coordinating conjunction and in lists of three or more terms, I developed a natural tendency to use it in my writing as it seemed to help by writ- ten English match my spoken English. When I articulate three things in a row, I almost always pause before the last term is articulated; I would say “milk, pause, eggs, pause, and cheese.” It feels rushed to say “milk, pause, eggs and cheese.” It also serves to clearly distinguish between the last two items in a given list, and there is a lawsuit which hinged on this point. In 2014, three truck drivers of the Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine, sued on the grounds that they had been denied overtime pay. Maine law states that any hours worked over 40 in a week constitute overtime, with some exceptions. The pertinent one here is “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of certain foodstuffs constitutes an overtime exemption. Note, however, that there is no comma after the word “shipment,” which tasked the court with deciding whether the act of packing and shipping had to be performed by the same person to deny overtime. Al- though the trial court ruled in favor of Oakhurst Dairy, the verdict was reversed upon appeal, the appellate court ruling that the inherent uncertainty in the law was enough to rule in favor of the drivers. The law- yer who represented the drivers in the case even admitted that their entire case rested on the absence of the comma in Maine’s overtime law. What makes this case even better is that the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual instructs legislators to avoid use of the Oxford comma. Use them “Use them thoughtfully and sparingly,” it says. However, there is an argument that the Oxford comma actually decreases clarity in certain sentences. Take for ex- ample, the sentence “I went to the diner with my father, Robert, and Nick.” It is unclear in this formulation whether Robert is my father or not. Yet this is easily resolved through a reordering of the list. If I were to instead say “I went to the diner with Robert, Nick, and my father,” it becomes clear that neither Robert nor Nick is my father. Now I understand that this debate is far from over, and there are points I cannot refute, chiey among them that the Oxford comma does constitute an additional character, which can be a concern if space is limited. Now, this may seem nitpicky, but the in- creased clarity offered by the Oxford comma far outweighs its downsides. Clarity of language is key, and especially considering how one missing comma changed the outcome of a legal dispute, is it re- ally too burdensome to make use of the Oxford comma? It truly does have its purpose in allowing the articulation of clear meanings.

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In Defense of the Oxford Comma