For a seemingly innocuous punctuation mark, the Oxford comma generates a surprising amount of controversy. Otherwise known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is written after the penultimate item in a list to prevent it from being grouped with the last item: ‘We bought apples, pears, and oranges’.
Detractors argue that Oxford commas are usually unnecessary. But failing to use one can change the meaning of a sentence with potentially confusing consequences. As the Guardian newspaper’s style guide points out, ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling’ does not mean the same as ‘I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling’.
While many have long been aware of the Oxford comma’s importance, a dairy company in the US recently discovered it to their cost, as reported by the Guardian this week. The rules of the company state that employees will not be paid overtime for:
‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of agricultural produce…’.
The firm’s delivery drivers argued that the absence of an Oxford comma after ‘packing for shipment’ meant that whereas the packing of items – for shipment or distribution – was excluded from overtime pay, the distribution of those items was not. An appeals court judge agreed with them, and the drivers could now collectively be owed millions of dollars in overtime, making this a very costly comma.