To Oxford or not … has been a subject of great debate of late with plenty of buzz surrounding whether to use an Oxford comma when writing content. For those who are not in-the-know, the Oxford comma is the use of a comma before the words “and”, “or”, or “nor” at the end of a list. To be fair, its use is grammatically optional, technically speaking, in American English. However, depending on the list you are writing, its omission can lead to some confusion. For example, in a recent article, Buzzfeed cited some very funny, if not innocuous reasons why you should always use the Oxford comma. In other instances, its lack of use have brought Corporate CEOs and World leaders alike to their knees… literally and figuratively… with a few winding up in the courtroom.
Case in point… a group of dairy drivers from Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine argued that according to the company’s written guidelines, they deserved overtime pay for certain tasks they had completed. The company, however, disagreed. The drivers took the case to court, with an appeals court siding with the drivers, saying that the company’s guidelines were ambiguous. Why? Turns out because it lacked an Oxford comma. You be the judge.
In short, the guidelines read: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
In reading the guidelines, it begs the question: Is packing for shipment its own activity, or does it only apply to the rest of that clause, “distribution of agricultural produce, etc.”?
All of this could have been simply resolved if only the company had included the use of an Oxford comma in its guidelines, clearly stating “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as separate activities. In siding with the plaintiff, the appeals court stated that the drivers distribute perishable food, but don’t pack it.
Yes… a real court case with the Portland, Maine based dairy company losing millions of dollars in back overtime pay for their drivers all because they chose not to use the Oxford comma.
So while style experts may continue to disagree on whether to use the Oxford comma, its lack of use is increasingly illustrating why it is now considered THE most important punctuation mark of all time!