In March 2017, a Maine judge made a rather alarming decision, one that cost the dairy industry $5 million. A group of delivery drivers had filed a lawsuit against their employers in order to seek payment for working overtime. However, their employers had claimed that Maine’s labor laws exempted the drivers from overtime pay due to the nature of their job. According to the law, the following tasks were exempted from overtime pay: “[t]he canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods.” The key here is punctuation: The drivers argued that “packing for shipment or distribution” was a single act, and thus that the law exempts overtime pay for those tasked with “packing for shipment or distribution” but not with just “distribution.” And because the drivers only distributed the items and had no role in shipment, what they did was not covered as a legally recognized exemption (CNN, “A lack of an Oxford comma cost dairy $5 million,” 02.09.2018).
The judge agreed. If there was an Oxford comma before the “or” in “packing for shipment or distribution,” the employers would have won. But because the law forgot to include that comma, the drivers won instead. This simple grammatical oversight resulted in a major legal decision, prompting Maine lawmakers to quickly revise their labor laws to include the Oxford comma. If this seems irrelevant to the daily life of a college student, then you are sadly mistaken. The Oxford comma is essential for clarity, and it should be used by everyone in every circumstance.
The target of my specific ire today are my editors at The Miscellany News. While I love and defend the paper that has been home to my writing for four years, I find the editors’ opposition to the Oxford comma inexcusable. So, as break to my usual spotlight on disability rights and anti-Semitism, I will tackle a loftier and—I assume you’ll all agree—more important issue: the beloved Oxford comma. Really, this has been a long time coming.
To start, it’s important to understand what the Oxford comma is. According to Grammarly, the Oxford comma is simply the last comma in a list. Here’s an example of a sentence that incorporates its use: “I’d like to thank my parents, Elizabeth Bradley, and Stanley Kubrick.” In short, it’s mostly used for clarity. (Grammarly, “What Is the Oxford Comma and Why Do People Care So Much About It?”). Consider my example sentence without the Oxford comma. It would look like this: “I’d like to thank my parents, Elizabeth Bradley and Stanley Kubrick.” See the problem? This sentence could accidentally convey that Stanley Kubrick and Elizabeth Bradley are my parents, rather than two separate people whom I want to thank.
To be fair to The Miscellany News, the Oxford comma would indeed be used in this circumstance. The official policy is as follows: “Do not put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a simple series. Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction. If the elements of the series are full independent clauses, put a comma before the concluding conjunction” (Miscellany News Style Guide, last updated 2018). The idea behind this rule is to clean up clutter; it’s better to save ink and space. So, we only use the Oxford comma if we feel that it’s absolutely key for the purpose of clarity.
While this is not an unreasonable position, it is ultimately an unwise one. The Miscellany News’ position here marks an error in values. By supporting the regular use of the Oxford comma, the editors would signal to their readers that they value clarity above all else. By not doing so, they put our newspaper at risk—the writers and editors are much more likely to make the mistake of not using it in a situation even when it helps make their points clearer. I would argue that it is better to overuse the Oxford comma than to underuse it. The worst the former could bring is a little wasted ink; the worst the latter could bring is an embarrassing semantic mistake.
In Judaism, there is a concept known as “building a fence around the Torah,” or in Hebrew, “asu s’yag latorah.” According to Reform Rabbi David E. Ostrich, “Just as a fence around a yard or house protects it, many of the Rabbinic innovations were designed to protect the commandments in the Torah. These developments were not seen as additions of subtractions, but rather as aids in maintaining the integrity of the mitzvot” (Union of Reform Judaism, “Making Fences Around the Torah,” 11.20.2017).
Essentially, in order to prevent Jewish people from breaking the law handed down by God, the rabbis would go a little further than necessary in the form of rabbinic prohibitions. Think of it like building a large fence around a tree—that way, if a driver ran offroad, the driver would only damage the fence and not the tree. An example of this for Jews is chicken parmesan. In Judaism, there is a ban on cooking a cow in its mother’s milk. This essentially means that you can’t eat beef with cheese or any other kind of dairy. According to Professor David Kraemer of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, chicken was largely considered meat the same way beef was, and thus, the rabbis classified all meat as one (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Ask the Expert: Why is chicken parmesan not kosher,” 09.11.2009). Therefore, even though birds don’t give milk, they are classified alongside cows so that Jewish people would be less likely to make a mistake.
I suggest that, much like how the Jewish people have built a fence around the Torah, The Miscellany News should build a fence around the Oxford comma. It is safer for the editors to require the use of the Oxford comma so as to avoid confusion and prevent mistakes that could muddle one’s message.
I would also argue that the current guidelines leave out important occasions when the use of the Oxford comma is necessary. Consider my previous example: “I would like to thank my parents, Elizabeth Bradley, and Stanley Kubrick.” Here, it is essential that the Oxford comma be used for clarity, but this is not covered by the style guide. Kubrick does not require a conjunction in his name, and he is not an independent clause. Therefore, if we follow current guidelines, the Oxford comma remains absent even when needed for clarity.
While The Miscellany News could decide to simply open up their standards and give writers more freedom to determine when it is necessary, I believe the better route is to require it always. That way, writers will fall into the habit of using the Oxford comma and will be far less likely to make a silly mistake. This is an opportunity for The Miscellany News to embrace common sense grammar rules. Through this change, we can send a signal to our readers that we care about eliminating any possible sources of confusion in our writing. It’d be a real shame to let this opportunity pass by.