Milk, Cream, and the Oxford Comma

Grammarian's Corner, Writer's Corner

Dakota Smith

The question “Should I put a comma before the word ‘and’ in my list?” is a common question among students. The comma referred to by these students is called the serial comma or the Oxford Comma, and the debate regarding it has been going on for years.

The debate over the use of the Oxford Comma comes from differences in formatting styles. Most academic institutions follow the American Psychological Association (APA) style guide or the Modern Language Association (MLA) style guide in their publications. However, some publishers, such as newspapers, often use the Associated Press (AP) style book in their publications, which does not call for the use of the Oxford Comma unless it is needed for clarification. Both the MLA style guide and the APA style guide claim that the serial or Oxford Comma is necessary in a list of three or more items to avoid ambiguity in a sentence.

For example, if I placed an order for two smoothies and said the flavors I wanted were blueberry, mango, strawberry and banana, I might possibly get a single smoothie containing both strawberry and bananas instead of a strawberry smoothie and a banana smoothie. An example of a smoothie doesn’t seem very serious, but what if the same mistake was made in a legal document? This was the case for one lawmaker in a Maine labor dispute. Delivery drivers at Oakhurst Dairy, a local milk and cream factory in Maine, recently found out the power of the Oxford Comma.

In the Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy case, five delivery drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy company won their appeal by arguing the use (or lack of) the Oxford Comma. Maine labor laws state that the following work does not qualify for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: agricultural produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods.

The five delivery drivers from the Oakhurst Company noticed the fatal flaw of the Maine law when they tried to figure out if they could work overtime. The delivery drivers argued that the labor law was too ambiguous and “packing for shipment or distribution” could be interpreted as a single event exempt of overtime or two separate events exempt of overtime. United States Court of Appeals judge David J. Barron argued in the defense of the delivery drivers, saying that “packing for shipment or distribution” could mean only the people who pack the dairy products are exempt from working overtime and not the delivery drivers. The delivery drivers also argued that lawmakers had made their list using the gerund -ing on every word except distribution, which meant distribution did not appear that it was meant to be included in the list.

People may feel that the Oxford Comma is an unnecessary and superfluous type of punctuation, but examples like the Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy case show that the Oxford Comma is often necessary for clarification and the prevention of ambiguity in sentences. If Maine state representatives had accounted for the Oxford Comma—and maybe used a grammar app—then they could have saved the people’s tax dollars on a case that could have been easily avoided.

The MLA and APA style guides regard the Oxford Comma as highly important. Even publishers who follow the AP style guide, which does not require the use of the Oxford Comma in everyday writing, agree that there are instances where the Oxford Comma is necessary to maintain the integrity of the idea presented in a sentence. Overall, students should keep the Oxford Comma in mind when writing their papers, so they do not end up in an unfortunate circumstance like that of the Maine lawmakers.