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.
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