Do you go to the store for “cupcakes, vanilla, and chocolate” or “cupcakes, vanilla and chocolate”? There’s a long-running debate over whether it’s proper to include that last comma in a list. Lifehacker’s policy is to eschew it, but we have to admit that the so-called ‘Oxford comma’ does makes things clearer on occasion – as proven in a recent US lawsuit.
Did you know there is a butterfly called the comma? Now you do. Photo by Charlie Jackson.
The comma before “and” is known to grammar nerds as an Oxford comma. In most cases, it is an ugly and unnecessary addition which is why we don’t use it on Lifehacker. On the other hand, its omission can occasionally lead to odd misunderstandings. Here’s an example proffered by the Grammarly Blog:
‘I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.’
Without the Oxford comma, the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your parents, and your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.
Of course, most sensible readers will be able to grasp the writer’s intended meaning, particularly within the context of preceding and following sentences. However, that does not mean that confusion never occurs. A US dairy company recently learned this the hard way – and it could cost them millions of dollars in paid overtime to their workers.
The suit involved a Maine state law that said workers were not entitled to overtime pay if their work is “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of certain foods. Truck drivers sued, saying that they deserve overtime because their job is distribution. They do not do “packing for shipment or distribution”. The court agreed: if the state wanted “distribution” to be its own item in the list, they should have used a damn comma.
The law was written according to the state’s style guide, which says it’s fine to leave out the comma before “and” just because that’s a thing people do sometimes. But the court is right: if you want to clearly identify the items in your list, consider your commas carefully.
For the time being, we’ll be keeping Lifehacker an Oxford comma-free zone. As the Grammarly Blog notes, it’s usually easy to clear up potential confusion by rephrasing the sentence.
Additional reporting by Chris Jager.