From the Editor: The Great Debate -- To use, or not to use, the Oxford comma



This past March, a $10 million lawsuit hinged on the absence of the Oxford comma (the last comma in a series). The state of Maine requires that all employees who work more than 40 hours per week must be paid overtime, with a few exceptions. These exceptions were stated as workers involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of perishable foods.” A Maine milkman named Chris O’Connor realized that it was ambiguous as to whether the overtime exclusion applied to workers who just packed perishable foods for shipment or distribution or whether it was intended also to be applied to those who just distributed perishable foods. The judge agreed that it was indeed ambiguous and therefore 75 milk distributors were awarded a total of $10 million in unpaid overtime. 

As pedantic as it may seem, the use – or lack thereof – of the Oxford comma is a subject of fierce debate among self-proclaimed grammar nerds, writers, journalists, and publishers alike. I distinctly remember being taught about this grammatical controversy in eighth grade and immediately taking a side in favor of the contended comma. Perhaps in some instances it is, as critics argue, redundant, but in so many cases, it is needed. For example, without the comma, the sentence “I would like to invite my cousins, Katie and Sarah” becomes ambiguous as to whether I am inviting my cousins named Katie and Sarah, or whether I want to invite my cousins plus two other people named Katie and Sarah. 

We at CMM primarily, though not fully, follow the Associated Press Stylebook, which is the usage guide created to standardize mass communications in the press. It would shock you to know how many tweaks and changes are made on a yearly basis. In an article title, for example, only prepositions longer than four letters are capitalized one year, while the next year four-letter prepositions, such as “with,” must also be capitalized. AP recently deemed the use of “their” as an acceptable singular gender-ambiguous possessive pronoun. While this has always been considered wrong in proper English, everyone uses it in “their” speech since the English language does not have a proper pronoun of this nature, and “his or her” is exceedingly awkward. So in the absence of creating a new word, I applaud the much needed acceptance of this usage of “their.” 

In light of its necessity, thus proven by the Maine milkman’s lawsuit (as well as my eighth grade sworn allegiance), we at CMM are now diverging from AP on this particular point and will be henceforth in league with the controversial comma. 

Sincerely,

Margaret Clay

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