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Grammatical nonsense: Lack of Oxford comma eliminates clarity, precision, happiness

Because English is one of the most widely spoken languages, there are many variations in it. One of the biggest differences is between English in the United States versus Britain. The British spell things strangely, such as spelling “gray” “grey”, “color” “colour”, and “realize” “realise” (they like to avoid z’s for some reason). Perhaps sometimes an American might think that the British way makes sense or a British person might like the American way better, but usually, there is little overlap. However, one rule that both Americans and the British argue about is the serial comma, otherwise known as the Oxford comma.

What is the Oxford comma? Well, I used it in the first paragraph when I was listing odd British spellings. In a list of three or more items, the Oxford comma is used between the second to last and the last word.

The sentence “I like my cousins, Bob and Joe,” leaves a bit of ambiguity. Are my cousins named Bob and Joe, or do I like my cousins along with Bob and Joe? However, by simply adding the Oxford comma, making the sentence “I like my cousins, Bob, and Joe,” it is clear that Bob and Joe are different people from your cousins.

There’s no harm in using it, right? So why do some people insist upon not using it? Both the MLA8 and AP styles (AP, coincidentally, being the style newspaper writers write in) have taken the Oxford comma out of their guidebooks. The only thing it adds is clarity. It never adds confusion or misunderstanding. Wouldn’t a journalist want to be as clear as possible? So why, why, WHY?

Okay. Maybe I’m getting a bit worked up about this. Who cares in the end? It’s not like it affects daily life or even legal proceedings…OH WAIT! IT DOES!

A recent court case in Maine occurred between a dairy company and some of their delivery employees involving overtime pay. Maine’s labor law exempts certain tasks from having to be paid for overtime, but the way it is phrased led to some confusion. The exact line for exemption is “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1) Agricultural produce 2) Meat and fish products 3) Perishable foods.” There is no comma between the “packing for shipment” and “distribution”, so the argument the drivers made was that they were all one phrase, and because they had not packed and only distributed, they should receive overtime pay. This went to court, the drivers won the case, and the dairy company had to pay 5 million dollars.

There are arguments that using it can add ambiguity. The example given by the style book of the New York Herald Tribune in 1934 (may seem outdated, but it still works) is “Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.” Supposedly, it makes the donor of the cup sound like Mr. Smith, but that is just a matter of how one reads the sentence. However, not using the Oxford comma leaves much more open to interpretation than using it does.

One problem is that this issue does not arise in speech. When people talk, the inflection of the words can tell a person exactly what the meaning is. Since people generally speak more than they write, they don’t really pay attention to this issue until pen comes to paper.

Is it really that hard to add that curved line at the end of a word? Is it really that much of a sacrifice to put something that could completely change the clarity of a sentence? Or, if you are wanting to describe someone and think that the Oxford comma would take away clarity, is it that difficult to add parentheses for description? Apparently it is to many people. The debate of the Oxford comma is relevant, and since learning how to read and write properly are some of the most valuable skills one can learn, this will continue to be relevant as long as writing exists. Use the Oxford comma often, use it correctly, and defend its integrity.

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