The Oxford Comma

March 19, 2018
Sean Anderson from the University of Illinois College of Law

Sean Anderson from the University of Illinois College of Law

University of Illinois College of Law

Imagine your significant other has left you a note asking you to stop by the grocery store and pick up chips, beer, and guacamole. In that scenario, you might not even notice whether he or she included a comma after “beer,” the second-to-last item on the list. That comma is called an Oxford comma, or sometimes a serial comma. And in this example, it doesn’t matter at all whether your loved one included the Oxford comma, because you’ll know what to buy either way.

In some circumstances, though, the presence or absence of the Oxford comma can affect the meaning. Imagine if, instead of asking for chips, beer, and guac, your significant other’s note asked you to pick up diet soda, macaroni, and cheese. With a comma after “macaroni,” it’s clear you’re meant to get three separate items; without the comma, there’s at least a chance it’s only two items: diet soda and a package of mac-n-cheese mix. And, to be fair, we could also come up with examples where the meaning would be clear without a comma, but potentially less clear with it.

I hastened to add that clarifying note because the last thing I want is to get on anyone’s bad side over the Oxford comma. There are people who take … well … strong positions either for or against using this comma. They spend valuable time thinking of examples in which including or omitting it would lead to unclear (and often funny) results.

For example, one favorite of the anti-Oxford-comma crowd takes this form: If I write, “the guests included my wife [comma] Lady Gaga [comma] and Pope Francis,” it’s at least formally unclear whether I’m listing three people or claiming to be married to Lady Gaga. Omitting the Oxford comma after “Lady Gaga” would eliminate that ambiguity. But then, as with most of the examples on both sides of the debate, so would simply reordering the items, as in “Lady Gaga, Pope Francis, and my wife.”

At this point, I should acknowledge that I’ve never made it nearly this far into a segment of Legal Issues in the News without mentioning law. But all good things must come to an end. A lawsuit in Maine recently settled for $5 million, almost a year after the plaintiffs convinced a federal appeals court that a provision in the state’s overtime-pay law was unclear.

The court’s decision rested, in part, on the fact that the law didn’t use a comma to separate what the defendants claimed were the last two items in a series: “packing for shipment or distribution.” Without an Oxford comma, the court said, it was unclear whether the phrase referred to two activities (packing goods for shipment and distributing the goods) or just one (packing goods for either shipment or distribution).

In this specific case, it might have been foreseeable that the law was unclear, such that better drafting could have avoided the problem, either by using an Oxford comma or otherwise. More generally, though, the best writing in the world will not avoid difficult questions of interpretation. Put simply, no statute, contract, or other document can ever resolve, with full clarity and precision, all the potential questions that might arise as time and litigation go by.

So debates will rage over the Oxford comma and other, similarly geek-tastic topics, but in the end judges will still have to decide tough cases, including those that turn on how to apply words on a page to the never-ending wrinkles of real life.