Why commas matter to dairy drivers and dildo collectors

Commas make sense of writing and reading. Why do people make so much fuss about them?

According to The Oxford Guide to Style (2002), the serial or Oxford comma is used in place of conjunctions to separate elements in a list of three or more items. “If the last item in a list has emphasis equal to the previous ones, it needs a comma to create a pause of equal weight to those that came before.” As in:

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.
Consult a trade union official, a personnel officer, or a staff member.
Government of, by, and for the people.

Omitting a comma can lead to confusion and ribaldry. A well-known example is offered by an invitation to tea addressed to “The bishops of Bath and Wells, Bristol, Salisbury, and Winchester”. From the grouping of the commas, it is obvious that the Bishop of Bath and Wells is one person, and the bishops of Bristol, Salisbury, and Winchester are three people. Hence tea for four.

Similarly, the sentences “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are quite different. Without a comma, my parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

In the State of Maine, USA, the much-maligned Oxford comma has helped a group of dairy drivers win a dispute with their company about overtime pay. In a judgment that will delight those who believe in good punctuation, a court of appeals sided with delivery drivers because the lack of a comma made part of Maine’s overtime laws ambiguous.

Maine’s law says the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay: “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.”

The drivers argued that the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution” meant the legislation applied only to the single activity of “packing”, rather than to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. And because drivers distribute the goods, but do not pack them, they argued they were eligible for overtime pay – backdated over several years. They won.

The Oxford comma ignites considerable passion among its proponents and opponents. In 2011, when it was wrongly reported that it was being dropped by the University of Oxford style guide, there was uproar.

The following gem comes from a TV listing in The Times. “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

It supports the use of the Oxford comma, by keeping Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can’t keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod.

And from Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003) by Lynne Truss, the one everyone knows:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Punctuation

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