Then You Ate, Shot and Left? (Gasp!)


My inspiration for this week’s post was an article I found on NPR.com. In it, reporter Colin Dwyer discusses a recent court ruling favoring dairy producer delivery drivers in Portland, Maine. It turns out the use of a serial comma, or to be more precise, the lack of one, may end up costing the dairy a pretty penny!

Before I get into the details of the case, I want to discuss the good old serial comma; known by many as the Oxford comma, and the decades, nay, centuries-long controversy surrounding it.

There are battle lines drawn about the use of the Oxford comma, that’s for sure. Firstly, there’s Team Oxford, and their American counterparts, The Chicago Style Manual, American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), and dear old grandpappy, Strunk and White. Lined up on the other side of the battlefield is the Associated Press, and pretty much every Brit who isn't a member of the Oxford University Press.

And, it turns out, a bit like today's politics, it’s very difficult to persuade one faction to even consider the other’s position. Thus, just like the current political climate, tensions get heated, things get scrappy, and mean memes abound.

Speaking of memes, as you can probably tell from my visual for this week’s post, I lean toward Team Oxford. Years and years of writing MLA papers will do that to a gal. But I’ve also come to terms with compromise and believe common sense should prevail. In Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the boys who are known as grammar royalty use “red, white, and blue” as the very first example of writing a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction. But, let’s be honest here. “Red, white and blue” is pretty unambiguous too, so one could legitimately argue the use of the Oxford comma in this sentence is superfluous.

But there are other examples where the omission of the Oxford comma has produced cringe-worthy (and often hilarious) results. Take “Let’s eat grandpa,” “I love cooking my pets and my family,” and “This book is dedicated to my parents, Pope Pious XIII and God,” to name just a few. Some people have even made millions by pointing out the dangers of an errant Oxford comma.

Former British radio host Lynne Truss wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation in 2003, and it immediately became a best-seller in both the UK and US. It is a light-hearted look at the demise of punctuation in the age of electronic communications, and an entire chapter is devoted to the wonderfully controversial Oxford/serial comma. The title of the book, and my attempt to derive a blog post title from it, comes from an old joke about a panda that goes something like this:

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."

For sure, it’s a pretty funny story, and a great example of how things can go terribly wrong when a serial comma is omitted, which brings me back to the legal case involving the Portland dairy. Turns out its five delivery drivers that are fighting to be paid overtime just earned the right to have their case heard in court because of the ambiguity of Maine’s overtime laws. Yep, it all boils down to a single comma; or the lack of one, according to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Score one for grammar nerds everywhere!

What do you think about the serial comma? Are you a proponent? Or do you think nobody cares but the grammar Nazis you tend to avoid on social media? Are you an AP over APA kind of guy (or gal)? Or will you cleave to the Oxford comma until the day you die? Let us know below!

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