Prachi Gohil, Roving Editor
It has been bothering me for quite a while now; I used to get a lot of complaints about using the comma excessively, and that I had no account for the number of commas that I use in a blog post. This is not about defending my style of writing, but it is about something far more important, which is often blindsided by our incompetence to understand the intricacies of this amazing language. As by-products of the internet, we have taken it upon ourselves to educate rather than stay updated with the current fad in vocabulary. Having said this, we have incorporated our informal communication into tables of official matter. Without the use of proper punctuation, the meaning of a sentence can be easily changed.
Once upon a time, in the days of glorious harmony, we invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. Now, if you read that in less than five seconds, I am certain that you did not get the point. The above sentence implies that we, as in two people (you and I) invited two strippers who were JFK and Stalin. But after adding proper punctuation – the extra comma known as the Oxford comma in the sentence can be revamped as; Once upon a time, in the days of glorious harmony, we invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin. The above sentence leaves no room for ambiguous interpretations, as it clearly indicates that we invited strippers along with JFK and Stalin.
In the early 20th century, newspapers omitted the use of a comma after the word “and” in order to save space and an extra line in their daily. This later became the standard as many publishing houses used this miser trick to get the maximum words out. Oxford and Harvard were the only two institutions who promoted the use then. Hence the name, “Oxford comma.”
To summarize: What is an Oxford comma? It’s a comma before the ‘and’ in any given sentence.
A lack of an oxford comma cost a dairy company $5 million, as reported by CNN.
A group of Maine dairy delivery drivers will receive $5 million in a proposed settlement for unpaid overtime, according to court records filed. A judge ruled in the drivers’ favor last March, and it was all thanks to the lack of an Oxford comma in a Maine labor law. The drivers’ employer had claimed they were exempt from overtime pay, according to Maine’s labor laws. Part of the law exempts certain tasks from receiving overtime compensation. This is what the law’s guidelines originally stated about exempted tasks: 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.
Without the Oxford comma, 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 did not actually do any packing, they should not have been exempt from overtime pay. “Specifically, if that [list of exemptions] 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,”
the circuit judge wrote. According to court documents, the dairy, while denying any wrongdoing, believed further litigation would be protracted and expensive. The proposed settlement will be considered by a federal judge. To prevent any more Oxford comma drama, the Maine Legislature has since edited this exemption, replacing the punctuation with semicolons.