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The Oxford comma

March 17, 2017

I see that the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma, has been in the news. (I must thank Karen Brown for alerting me to this story.) A group of delivery drivers in Maine, USA, won a tribunal to claim for more overtime pay from the dairy company they worked for; and this was because their written list of duties ended with ‘freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of [various goods]”. But is distribution a separate activity from packing for shipment? An Oxford comma – “packing for shipment, or distribution” – would have made this clear. The point is that the drivers did distribute but didn’t pack. The court ruled that the rules were ambiguous for want of a comma, and could be interpreted in the drivers’ favour; and so they got their overtime.

Well, that’s very good news. I like this story. I like the way it demonstrates the importance of accurate punctuation; and I like the fact that the Oxford comma is the hero of the story. I’m aware that some people don’t like the Oxford comma, but I have never understood why. I think it may be just that they’ve got a rule lodged in their brains from their schooldays – Never use a comma before ‘and’ – and feel superstitious about breaking it.

Personally I use the Oxford comma whenever I feel it aids clarity, and always feel quite smug about it afterwards. As chance would have it I needed to use it just the other day. I was sending an email to a group of Open University students to whom I teach a one-year course which is an introduction to all the arts disciplines, and I was informing them of courses they could progress to next year: “There are single-discipline, second-level courses available in literature, history, art history, music, classics, philosophy, and religious studies”. I had to use an Oxford comma there, or they have might assumed that “philosophy and religious studies” was one subject.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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