Grammar Oxford Comma Dispute Settled |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Oxford Comma Dispute Settled

Eleven months ago, in our newsletter of March 29, 2017, we passed along to you the newspaper article “Lack of Comma Costs Company Millions in Dispute.” Our Rule 1 of Commas discusses the value of the Oxford comma in a series of three or more items. Our rule allows writers to exercise discretion as to whether to omit the Oxford comma in a simple series. However, in some cases, clarity demands that the Oxford comma be included in order to avoid misunderstandings.

There could hardly be a better illustration of where a misunderstanding could have been avoided by including an Oxford comma than in the lawsuit brought by the Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers.

In the article below, you will read how the case was recently settled and how the law was rewritten. We wonder whether you agree with the way the legislators revised the law. We agree with the attorney in the article who stated that the meaning would have been clear had the Oxford comma been inserted after the word shipment. However, the Maine legislature decided instead to insert semicolons after each item in the series. We suppose that clarifies matters, but it sure seems like overkill.

Our Rule 3 of Semicolons (which is consistent with guidance found in leading references such as the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook) states, “Use a semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas.” We don’t see any commas in any of the individual units of the series. Why use all of these semicolons when inserting the comma after shipment would have sufficed? At any rate, this is an excellent example of how proper punctuation really does matter. At least it matters to us “grammar goons,” as we’re called in the article below.

Oxford comma dispute is settled as Maine drivers get $5 million

Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, 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, Maine, agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, according to court documents filed Thursday.

The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st 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.

But the resolution means there will be no ruling from the land’s highest courts on whether the Oxford comma—the often-skipped second comma in a series like “A, B, and C”—is an unnecessary nuisance or a sacred defender of clarity, as its fans and detractors endlessly debate. (In most cases, The New York Times stylebook discourages the Oxford comma, so called because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press.)

It appears the Maine Legislature has learned its lesson, at least. It revised the disputed state law last year to end ambiguity by adding new punctuation—but not in the way you might be thinking.

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.

(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.”

Since then, the Maine Legislature addressed the punctuation problem. Here’s how it reads now:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce.

(2) Meat and fish products.

(3) Perishable foods.

So now we get to replace Oxford comma pedantry with semicolon pedantry. A message to Maine’s reviser of statutes was not immediately answered Friday.

But as far as the actual overtime dispute goes, Webbert said the case ended well.

“We are pleased the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all parties,” he said in an email.

—Daniel Victor, New York Times News Service

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

13 responses to “Oxford Comma Dispute Settled”

  1. Naomi says:

    Yes! Yeah for ‘us’ who are fans of the Oxford comma. I have argued its placement in documents when I did medicolegal transcription, since I was hearing the investigator’s speech and the Oxford comma was pertinent to understanding what he/she actually said, with the natural inflection.

  2. Rae says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Yes, I am an Oxford comma user.

  3. Jen says:

    I have a question about if a comma is needed after the word “Tennessee” in the following sentence.

    Redevelopment might mean a new mixed-use project that will reduce traffic congestion and give the neighborhood a boost like our project in Knoxville, Tennessee or our project in Stamford, Connecticut.

    Can you help?

    Thank you.

  4. Oliver M. says:

    Glad to see this… I have always put the Oxford comma before and (which many English professors did not like) except when it would change the meaning. The example I use is something like: “The patient was bruised, black and blue all over.” My adding a comma after black could change the meaning.

    Thanks for addressing this… now i have something to back me up on my putting the comma in when I feel it helps clarify the meaning.

  5. William G. says:

    I’m with you on semi-colons. Erase the dot and go with commas.

  6. John B. says:

    This is stupid. Semicolons are most times followed by a sentence.

  7. Rebecca S. says:

    The power of language and grammar and punctuation….

  8. Yvette B. says:

    Which example is correct?

    Ex. “He had come alone to the party, and, as he made his way through the crowd, he saw no one he knew.


    Ex. “He had come alone to the party, and as he made his way through the crowd he saw no one he knew.”

    I tend to think the second instance is rather dated (or used in traditional print books), but may not be used by a lot of modern blog writers.

    What do you think? Is the second instance just as effective in modern writing?

    • He had come alone to the party, and as he made his way through the crowd, he saw no one he knew. The reason is that “and” is serving as a coordinating conjunction between two independent clauses. We therefore need to separate them in the right place (after “party”). The dependent clause beginning with “as” then becomes attached to the next independent clause and is punctuated correctly with the comma before “he.”

  9. Jonathan Clarke says:

    It’s interesting that the commas in the case were replaced by semicolons which is unequivocally wrong! How thick could they be? I remember arguing rule 3b with teachers as a kid and they explained that and and but don’t require commas before them (ever!) but that, as you write, the Oxford comma does make things clearer. I used much the same argument as you have where the mix of elements in the list goes wrong if you leave out the commas.

  10. Cipriana says:

    I have a question that no one seems to be able to answer.
    If I do not use the Oxford or serial comma, can I use the serial semicolon? Would that be grammatically consistent?
    I do not think it is fair to not use the serial comma and then use the serial semicolon, but no one seems eager to discuss this with me.

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