The $10 Million Serial Comma–Why Not Use It?

Please explain to me why people don't use the serial comma. When millions of dollars can be drained away in a lawsuit because of its absence, why would anyone not use it? 

To be clear, these examples show the serial, or Oxford, comma and its role separating the parts of a series of three or more items:

  • Schedule a meeting with Janice, the editor, and the projector manager. 
  • He dedicated the book to his parents, Al Gore, and Daryl Hannah. 
  • Engineering, Product Development, Sales, and Marketing–all need to commit to the idea.
  • The overtime law does not apply to the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of products. 

These examples show the confusion the absence of the serial comma can cause: 

  • Schedule a meeting with Janice, the editor and the projector manager. (Is Janice both the editor and the projector manager? Or are three people involved?)
  • He dedicated the book to his parents, Al Gore and Daryl Hannah. (Are his parents unnamed, or are they Al Gore and Daryl Hannah?)
  • Engineering, Product Development, Sales and Marketing–all need to commit to the idea. (Is Sales and Marketing one team or two?) 
  • The overtime law does not apply to the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of products. (Does packing apply only to packing for shipment, or to packing for shipment or distribution?) 

That last example involves the $10 million missing serial comma. 

In a lawsuit about overtime pay, delivery drivers in the state of Maine argued that they were not exempt from the overtime law's protections. They based their argument on the interpretation that the exemption from overtime didn't cover distribution (which they obviously do as drivers); it covered packing, that is, "packing for shipment or distribution." 

The drivers lost in U.S. District but won this month in the U.S. Court of Appeals, where Circuit Judge David J. Barron wrote:

For want of a comma, we have this case. It arises from a dispute between a Maine dairy company and its delivery drivers, and it concerns the scope of an exemption from Maine's overtime law. 26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3). Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law's protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption's list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.

The District Court concluded that, despite the absent comma, the Maine legislature unambiguously intended for the last term in the exemption's list of activities to identify an exempt activity in its own right. The District Court thus granted summary judgment to the dairy company, as there is no dispute that the drivers do perform that activity. But, 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. We therefore reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.

 

According to The New York Times, the missing serial comma could cost Oakhurst Dairy an estimated $10 million. That's a steep cost for a punctuation choice. 

Supporting the general use of the serial comma, The Chicago Manual of Style states, "Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities . . . since it prevents ambiguity."

Garner’s Modern English Usage supports it too, stating, "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."

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends deciding whether the series demands a final comma:

Do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series. . . . He would nominate Tom, Dick, or Harry. 

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast. 

AP's second rule doesn't apply to any of the confusing examples above–not even the $10 million missing comma–so it wouldn't clarify them. 

I haven't heard a persuasive argument for leaving out the serial comma. Have you? Yet I've read plenty of evidence arguing for its use. 

Do your punctuation skills need a boost? Take my online self-study course Punctuation for Professionals. You can test drive it in a free trial. 

Lynn
Syntax Training

15 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with you, Lynn. Isn’t it interesting how passionate people get over the topic? ☺ I figure the lawsuit is an extremely effective way for the serial comma to make its point. ☺

  2. Thank you for the great post!
    In Greek, serial comma would be omitted before using an “and” when similar things are listed, as this plays the role of the separator. I thought the same logic applied in other languages and would avoid it. Thank you for pointing it out.

  3. The question certainly is debatable: In French, German, British English and US journalism, the serial comma is unknown or frowned upon. In line with the Associate Press practice Lynn cites above, I use the serial comma only when it eliminates ambiguity.

  4. Hello, Marie-Helene, Konstantina, and George, Thanks for your comments.

    Marie-Helene, you are welcome. Thanks for your enthusiasm!

    Konstantina, I am glad you learned something new about English. I spent five weeks in Greece last fall and I loved it. What a wonderful country!

    Hi, George. Yes, the question is debatable, but what are the solid arguments from the other side? I would rather be guilty of over-punctuation than confusion. I believe the Oxford comma is well accepted in British English, no? My “New Oxford Style Manual” recommends it.

    I’m glad you all took the time to write.

    Lynn

  5. I always thought that the AP made the choice to leave the serial comma out simply as a space saver and possibly as a work saver back in the typesetting days. Do all the missing serial commas really save space (and, therefore, money)? People smarter than me would have to figure that out.

  6. I’m just wondering… Couldn’t they just use “nor” to avoid confusion?
    “The overtime law does not apply to the […] packing for shipment NOR distribution of products.”
    Would this be correct and have the same meaning or would it be just as confusing?

  7. Hi Laura,

    In the days of typesetting, leaving out the comma no doubt saved time and space. I’d have to do a bit of research to learn whether it was more than that. But today? It’s hard to imagine either of those issues making a difference.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Lynn

  8. Deborah, what an interesting suggestion! I consulted “The Gregg Reference Manual” for the answer.

    “Gregg” rules against your idea, stating, “Do not use ‘nor’ in the same clause with any other negative; use ‘or’ instead.” This rule came under a section about using “nor” as a conjunction.

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

    Lynn

  9. Thank you for an insightful blog once again. Sometimes ambiguity can be removed just by changing the order of items in a series.

    I don’t think there’s much ambiguity in the following series:
    •Schedule a meeting with the editor, the projector manager and Janice.
    •He dedicated the book to Al Gore, Daryl Hannah and his parents.

    That said, the serial comma certainly makes things clearer in your last two examples.

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