The Oxford comma, sometimes called the serial comma, is one of the most important pieces of punctuation in the English language. For those who don’t know, the Oxford comma is a comma placed before the “and” or the “or” in a list of three or more items. I would give you an example, but unfortunately, I can’t. This is because the Associated Press (or “AP”) style––the writing style guide by which newspapers are published and to which our own paper adheres––forbids the use of the Oxford comma for some unknown and ungodly reason.
At first, this may seem like merely a gross overreaction from a grammar nerd. And that is an understandable response. However, clarity is key in writing, especially when one is reporting factual information, such as that presented in the majority of most newspapers, and the Oxford comma is essential in creating that much-needed clarity. For example, I present this sentence:
“I had lunch with my parents, Bob and Susan.”
Now from this, you might infer that my parents’ names are Bob and Susan, a reasonable inference based on the structure of the sentence. However, this would be incorrect. My intention in this sentence is actually to say that I had lunch with three individual parties, my parents and Bob and Susan. Not that Bob and Susan are my parents.
But how would you know that?
You would know that, dear reader, if I were able to use the Oxford comma to make my intentions clear by separating Bob and Susan as two separate parts of this list. But alas, the constraints of the AP style foil me once more and thus you are left confused and entirely misunderstanding my message.
This sort of ambiguity caused by the lack of Oxford commas does not merely include simple misunderstandings as the example I have given you. In 2014, it even led to a $5 million lawsuit. This lawsuit involved a dairy company, Oakhurst Dairy, and its employees in Maine. The dispute regarded whether certain actions merited overtime pay, which Maine state law, found at maine.gov, defines as “hours worked in excess of 40 in a work week at a rate not less than one and one-half their regular rates of pay.” The issue lies in the state of Maine’s further regulations, read at thewritelife.com on what work is eligible for overtime pay, stating, with this exact punctuation, that the following was not eligible:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
- Agricultural produce;
- Meat and fish product; and
- Perishable foods”
The dispute came in regarding the absence of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution.” Oakhurst Dairy argued that the law intended to say that “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were two separate entities in the list of ineligible tasks, but many of their employees argued that, due to the lack of a comma, the law didn’t actually say that. “In 2017, Judge David Barron reasoned that the law’s punctuation made it unclear if ‘packing for shipping or distribution’ is one activity or if ‘packing for shipping’ is separate from ‘distribution,’” wrote NBC News. The five distribution drivers who led the suit received $50,000 each and the other employees who filed were given due overtime compensation from their employer.
While not every example of confusion and misunderstanding from the lack of a comma is this drastic, it certainly proves the point that the Oxford comma, however small it may seem, is absolutely necessary. So use the Oxford comma, folks. Not only is it important, it’s correct.
Chloe Gocher (’25) is majoring in English and minoring in Spanish.