For want of a comma, millions were lost

A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes: The dreaded — or totally necessary — Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.

Most American news organizations tend to leave the Oxford comma out while allowing for exceptions to avoid confusion, like in the sentence: “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”

But the comma is common in book and academic publishing. The Chicago Manual of Style uses it, as does Oxford University Press style. “The last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity,” it says.

“In this situation, it did create an ambiguity, which means you have to either add a comma or rewrite the sentence,” he said.


Ah, yes, the joys of the English language!  In this instance, the lack of a comma created ambiguity, resulting in a huge cost to a company.  For writers, however, we face being misunderstood in what we intend if our punctuation is inaccurate or ambiguous.

“I love you,” Anna said.

“I love you?” Anna said.

Is there a difference in meaning of those two sentences?  Certainly, but you can only tell because of the punctuation.  As noted in the article about the dairy company overtime class-action lawsuit, if there is any possibility of being misunderstood you need to fix the punctuation to clarify, or rewrite the sentence.  In some cases, sentences lacking clarity are insignificant, but for the dairy company involved in the suit, it was not a small thing.

I once had a boss who would write or dictate letters to be typed by me, and he often misworded them.  Most of the time I could determine what he meant and fix them, but sometimes either of two interpretations was possible.  In those instances, I would have to go to him and have him tell me what he was trying to say, and then I would go write the sentence so that it actually said that.

Such mistakes can be costly, or merely embarrassing, but sometimes they are even funny.  I worked in a high-rise building, and we were notified that “firemen and their equipment and trucks will be in various parts of the building” during the day.  The obvious question was, “in which parts of the building will their trucks be – the elevators?  the restrooms?  the hallways?”.  This is an extreme example, and it was understood (despite the wording) what was meant, but the truth is they did not say what they meant to say.  I have sometimes read passages in books, too, where I am scratching my head trying to picture what the author is describing, and coming up short when elements of the description seem to contradict themselves.

It may never cost you any money, and perhaps you and a friend differ in your opinion of using the Oxford comma, but regardless, at the end of the day, you want to be correctly understood.  If an Oxford comma will achieve that, so be it.  If it takes something else to accomplish clarity, use that.  Just be clear in what you mean.


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