The case concerns the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. This is an optional comma used before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list, e.g. for breakfast today, I had toast, fruit, and yoghurt. In this example, the Oxford comma is redundant, since we automatically assume that fruit and yoghurt are two separate things. In other cases, though, it is definitely worth considering. The Oxford comma is more commonly used in the USA, and apparently for good reason.
In Maine, USA, a dispute solely resting on the use of the Oxford comma was recently settled for the amount of 5 million dollars. The matter concerned three drivers who sued the company Oakhurst Dairy for what they claimed was four years’ worth of outstanding overtime pay. Maine law sets out overtime requirements, but lists exemptions, including the following:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of [food].
The issue they raised was whether the exemption concerned the distribution of food, or whether it concerned packing for shipment or distribution. Had the Oxford comma been used, the former would have been implicit. However, the drivers’ lawyers successfully argued that their contract only appeared to exempt the packing of food for distribution from overtime pay.
Maine legislation has since been amended to reduce the chance of further disputes.
The Oxford comma can also be important in distinguishing family members, as in the following: I would like to thank my parents, the Queen and God. Although a bit far-fetched, this could be grammatically interpreted as meaning that your parents are the Queen and God.
In other cases, the Oxford comma should definitely be dropped, for example: To my mother, Mother Teresa, and the Pope. Unless Mother Teresa’s daughter is the author, this could also be a potential source of confusion.
The solution? Use a professional translator or copy editor to help you with your commas. It could save you money, or maybe even a parental responsibility case!
Illustration: Øystein Reigem