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I mentioned the Oxford comma recently in a conversation with Stefan. In case you haven’t heard of it, here is the definition, courtesy of Grammarly:

The Oxford (or serial) comma is the final comma in a list of things. For example:

Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.

The Oxford comma comes right after eraser.

Grammar - Oxford comma funny | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book

Use of the Oxford comma is stylistic, meaning that some style guides demand its use while others don’t. AP Style—the style guide that newspaper reporters adhere to—does not require the use of the Oxford comma. The sentence above written in AP style would look like this:

Please bring me a pencil, eraser and notebook.

Unless you’re writing for a particular publication or drafting an essay for school, whether or not you use the Oxford comma is generally up to you. However, omitting it can sometimes cause some strange misunderstandings.

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. Here’s the same sentence with the Oxford comma:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.

Those who oppose the Oxford comma argue that rephrasing an already unclear sentence can solve the same problems that using the Oxford comma does. For example:

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

could be rewritten as:

I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.

The Oxford Comma Lawsuit

If you think this is all rather esoteric, you may not have heard that the Oxford comma recently cost a dairy company $5 million. As the New York Times reports, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers.

The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.

The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carved out exemptions for:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

What followed the last comma in the first sentence was the crux of the matter: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The court ruled that it was not clear whether the law exempted the distribution of the three categories that followed, or if it exempted packing for the shipment or distribution of them.

Had there been a comma after “shipment,” the meaning would have been clear. David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, stated it plainly in an interview in March: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”

Grammar Enthusiasm Turned Onion-y

So heated does the debate get at times, that The Onion recently published a satirical post titled, 4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence. As the hilarious article put it:

Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style.

“At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.”

“The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.”

Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

So, where do you stand on the Oxford comma debate?