For a lot of people, grammar was something they could leave behind when they left school. Thanks to programmes such as Microsoft Word and its spelling and grammar check, it’s possible to get by in life with nothing more than a cursory knowledge of passive voices and dangling modifiers.
But while most grammar rules are hard and fast, such as when and where to use they’re, there or their, no grammar rule splits opinion more than the Oxford comma. The use of the Oxford comma — also called a serial comma — delineates the final item on a list, such as: ‘milk, cheese, and yoghurt’. Supporters of the punctuation argue it helps to differentiate subjects, while opponents say it’s cumbersome.
The polarising punctuation mark gets its name because it was preferred by Oxford University Press editors, and there’s no denying it can come in handy when items in a list are not single words. For example: ‘these items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.’
As wordsmiths, here at Partners we’re very proud of our impeccable grammar, and yet the Oxford comma can still be a contentious subject at times! So, when a news story caught our eye
recently with an example of an omitted Oxford comma resulting not only in confusion but a hefty financial settlement, we thought perhaps it might be time to re-examine our preferences!
The dispute in question arose when a dairy company in Maine, USA, claimed its drivers were exempt from overtime pay, according to Maine's labour laws. The sentence at the heart of the dairy drivers' case referred to Maine's overtime law and to whom it doesn't apply:
“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 this case, an Oxford comma could - probably should - have been included after ‘shipment’. But it wasn’t, and this gave the company’s drivers enough of a loophole to claim the line ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ could be referring to packing and shipping as a single act, or as two separate tasks. The drivers argued that it reads as a single act, and, since they didn't actually do any packing, they shouldn't have been exempt from overtime pay.
In the end, the company and the drivers reportedly settled for a cool $5m, while the legislature was swiftly edited. Clearly unwilling to give the Oxford comma its moment in the sun, those in charge instead chose to insert semicolons between each action. Spoilsports.
It’s a divisive issue and one that is likely to remain so, and, though at times we’ve all found ourselves caught in an annoying grammar trap, at least we know the English language has never been and will never be described as boring. At Partners we’ve got bags of experience of bringing words to life, and we know the value of constantly refreshing our knowledge when it comes to grammar.