Let's talk about the Oxford Comma

So, I've been writing out Christmas cards (yours is in the mail, don't worry). And I'm old school. I write out our names and all of the addresses. Repetitive, sure. But I look forward to it. I don’t include a note; I just write names.

Although yesterday, as I was writing them, I thought about the Oxford comma (aka the serial or Harvard comma). Simply put, the serial comma is used in lists, right before the word “and”: Amanda, Jack, Simon, and Misty went to the mall. We ate chicken, potatoes, carrots, and bread for dinner last night. You get it.

And so many grammar books cover it. In reading a ton of them, most editors prefer it. They provide clarity. Like this sentence:

I love my kids, Santa Claus and Rudolph.

Obviously, Santa and Rudolph aren’t my kids. But upon first glance of that sentence, it reads that those are my kids’ names.

A couple of months ago, my friend sent me an article about the Oxford comma. A group of drivers sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for overtime pay. This is how the company’s handbook read: “Overtime rules do not apply to: The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: • Agricultural produce; • Meat and fish products; and • Perishable foods.”

Was the company only concerned with people packing and distributing those specific products, or just their distribution? Because it was unclear, the drivers won. Had a comma been added before the “or,” Oakhurst Dairy would have had a better case against the payout.

Commas are tiny, and they may seem inconsequential, but Oakhurst Dairy now understands their importance to the tune of more than five million dollars.

As far as style guides are concerned, the Associated Press opts to skip the Oxford comma, while the Chicago Manual of Style accepts it. And even though the AP doesn’t recommend it, certain newspapers (including the NY Times) do, in fact, use it when the sentence would be unclear otherwise. We used the serial comma when I worked at the magazine even though we followed the AP Style Guide.

What about you? Comment your thoughts about the Oxford comma on the post. I’m curious to see who prefers it, and who prefers to skip it.