You may have read that lack of a “serial comma” or “Oxford comma” could cost a Maine company several million dollars because of an vaguely worded law regarding who has to be paid overtime.
Because of a missing comma, it wasn’t clear if workers were exempted from overtime for “packing for shipment and distribution” of several items, or “packing for shipment, and distribution” of the items — which covers considerably more territory if “distribution” is viewed as a separate activity.
If you didn’t see it, here’s the link to The New York Times article:
So what’s the deal with the Oxford comma?
Let’s start with the basics: A comma is employed to separate things in a list.
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
The question of whether there should be a comma after the last item in the list is, believe it or not, a vigorously debated issue among grammarians, editors and other people who have a lot of time on their hands.
A comma used at the end of a series, before the “and,” is called a serial comma, or sometimes an Oxford comma.
Some people use a serial comma and others don’t. It often depends on what “style” you are following, meaning the guidebook used by your profession or publisher. In news, journalists generally follow the lead of the Associated Press stylebook and The New York Times stylebook and omit the serial comma on the basis that it is unnecessary and clutters up the wording.
Without serial comma: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Several academic style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style and, not surprisingly, the Oxford Style Manual, instruct the writer to use the serial comma.
With serial comma: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.
Personally, I favor the serial comma because omitting the final comma can, in rare circumstances, create confusion. Here’s a joke grammarians swap among themselves when they really want to cut loose:
With serial comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.
But without the serial comma it appears that JFK and Stalin will finish the night naked:
We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
And sometimes the lack of a serial comma can produce some real-life puzzlers, such as a December 10, 2013 dispatch from the British news agency Sky News, which told readers that the top stories of the day were:
“World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…”