As any freelance writer knows, every client has his or her own style requirements. You may be asked to follow AP, Chicago, or some other internal style manual—or some combination of one of the major style guides plus an internal set of rules. Perhaps no bigger debate exists in the world of style guides is whether or not to use Oxford commas. Oxford commas, or serial commas, are not used in AP style (with a few exceptions). So, what exactly is an Oxford comma, and why should you care? Here’s what you need to know.
Oxford Comma 101
An Oxford comma is a comma that comes before the conjunction in a list of three or more things. These sentences show how the Oxford comma is used and how the same sentences would appear without it:
- I like pizza, French fries, and cake. (With Oxford comma)
- I like pizza, French fries and cake. (Without Oxford comma)
The disagreement over the use of the comma is whether the use of the comma is excessive or whether it is important to the meaning of the sentence. Without the Oxford comma, it could seem like I only eat French fries and cake when they are together, instead of liking each thing in the list individually.
According to AP rules, the Oxford comma should only be used when it is necessary to make the true meaning of the sentence clear. Chicago style requires the Oxford comma in all instances. This prevents the writer from having to make judgments about the ambiguity of statements.
Why The Oxford Comma Matters—and Why You Should Love It
Believe it or not, the Oxford comma was at the core of a recent lawsuit in Maine. Drivers used a company called Oakhurst Dairy, claiming that they were due overtime pay that they did not receive. The overtime agreement for the company read as follows:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
- Agricultural produce;
- Meat and fish product; and
- Perishable foods
There is no Oxford comma between packing for shipment and distribution. The company said that packing for shipment and distribution should be considered separate activities that are each ineligible for overtime. The drivers said that, because of the lack of a comma, the sentence really says “packing for shipping or distribution,” meaning that packing for these activities was exempt from overtime pay, but actual distribution without packing was not. As such, the drivers believed that they should receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours per week, since they were participating in distribution.
The court agreed with the drivers and specifically stated that an Oxford comma could have prevented the entire case. As a writer, this is confirmation that clarity can hinge on the comma and that using it whenever you’re not banned by a style guide makes sense. In other words, the Oxford comma is much more important than you might think!
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