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This & That: The Oxford comma, consistency, and law

This & That: The Oxford comma, consistency, and law

This & That: The Oxford comma, consistency, and law
April 04
23:36 2018

Oh, the Oxford Comma, so seductive in its controversy that few would fain forfeit the opportunity to fight for or against its rightful place as ink on a page.

In an epoch that is daily laden with newfangled controversies, one might expect to find refuge from contention in a field of study so seemingly mundane as grammar. But, like with gun legislation or President Trump’s Twitter page, emotions run equally as high when it comes to the serial comma.

So, as I am quite aware that one of my journalistic counterparts is producing an argument for the holocaust of the serial comma, allow me, a member of a different field of language study, to defend the underappreciated punctuation mark.

Not to be redundant — since I am sure Spencer also defined what exactly this pesky comma is and does — but the Oxford, serial, or Harvard comma (all names mean the same thing) is that minuscule line of ink in between the last two items in a series. In the sentence “I went to the store and purchased grapes, cookies, and milk,” the Oxford comma would be that preceding the “and.”

Many writing cultures — specifically that of journalists — have determined its employment is unnecessary. Dig through the pages of most newspapers or magazines and you will find a distinct lack of the serial comma’s use.

I feel it necessary to concede that this is true in many cases. In the sentence above, the removal of the serial comma doesn’t create any ambiguity, and it is clear either way that I bought those three food items regardless of the comma’s employment.

Unfortunately, however, rather than simply leaving out the comma in instances where no ambiguity is created, the other side of the comma aisle seems to think that its use should be eradicated entirely. The only arguments that I think hold water for this belief suggest that it is not always necessary and that removing it saves keystrokes — hence why journalists are so fond of forgetting it all together.

This is where I feel the need to passionately step out in defense of the comma’s rights as a punctual being. I believe the serial comma should be used in order to avoid accidental ambiguity and maintain consistency.

For example, take a more complex sentence: “The graduate thanked his parents, Jesus and Brad Pitt.” If you add in the serial comma, the graduate no longer is thanking Jesus and Brad Pitt as his givers of life, but he is thanking his parents as well as Jesus and Brad Pitt.

Many would argue the above sentence could be rearranged, and I think that is a valid argument. I am making the case, however, that we are better served to consistently use the Oxford comma to avoid any accidental ambiguity. One extra keystroke is much easier than completely rearranging a sentence.

But, don’t take my word for it. Who cares what a senior in college has to say? Instead, let us turn our attention to nearly all facets of law. The U.S. Supreme Court, both houses of congress, and many state legislatures require the use of the serial comma. They do so because it is so effective in avoiding any ambiguity or misinterpretation in legislative or contractual literature.

In the case O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, a missing serial comma was the deciding factor that cost the Oakhurst Dairy company $5 million.

While I agree that there are plenty of circumstances in which the serial comma is not absolutely necessary, I think that eradicating it leaves far too much room for potential misinterpretation. I’m by no means a grammar absolutist, but, in the case of the Oxford comma, I feel an obligation to come to its defense.

Featured Image: Illustration by Austin Banzon

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