Fans of Oxford Commas won’t like this post, I’m sure. But while commas are critically important, some are more important than others.
Oxford commas, also known as serial commas, are those that come at the end of a list and right after the next-to-last item in the list and before the and that follows that item. Here’s an example of an Oxford comma:
Please be sure to pick up eggs, milk, and flour at the grocery store.
The comma between milk and and is the Oxford comma.
This comma is not what I — and many other readers — would deem critical. The sentence reads just as clearly to most of us this way
Please be sure to pick up eggs, milk and flour at the grocery store.
You still understand there are three things to be picked up at the store. The Oxford comma doesn’t make an unclear sentence more clear.
Sometimes, you need a comma
On the other hand, a popular meme circulating on social media illustrates a perfect example of when a comma actually becomes critical.
Consider this sentence:
Three things I enjoy are eating my cats and not using commas.
Animal rights activists would likely be up in arms over the thought of someone eating his own cats. But without the commas, you could read the sentence that way. The clue, which you may have to read more than once for it to register, is the three.
The writer precedes the list by identifying them as three things he enjoys. That serves as a signal to the reader. If you just count “eating my cats” and “not using commas” as things the writer enjoys, you’re obviously missing something.
Logically, the only place a comma could go to give you three actions would be after eating.
But by the time the reader has to analyze the sentence to this degree, he’s likely become so annoyed with the unclear writing that he wouldn’t want to read further.
I know I wouldn’t.
Sometimes you even need Oxford commas
Some people get caught up in the Oxford comma debate. Supporters argue that if it’s a rule, it should be a rule all the time. But others argue it shouldn’t be about punctuational legalism so much as clarity.
Different style guides offer different guidance. The Associated Press Stylebook doesn’t ban Oxford commas, but it doesn’t require them every time either. Instead, it offers what I consider the best option: Use them when they’re necessary.
Sometimes, they can be necessary. But that depends on the sentence. NBC News reported on a 2014 lawsuit in Maine in which a missing Oxford comma in a state law cost a dairy $5 million in a labor dispute. The passage of the law listed the types of jobs that weren’t eligible for overtime:
“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.”
Delivery drivers sued for overtime. The judgment came down to the lack of a comma in that first line between shipment and or distribution. The ambiguity of the sentence, as written, meant you weren’t eligible for overtime if you packed deliveries for shipment or if you packed them for distribution. Had their been a comma after shipment, it would have been more clear that the act of distributing the product — whether you packed it or not — would have made you ineligible for overtime.
“In 2017, Judge David Barron reasoned that the law’s punctuation made it unclear if ‘packing for shipping or distribution’ is one activity or if ‘packing for shipping’ is separate from ‘distribution,'” NBC News reported.
You have to be clear
When you write, you must always keep clarity as your top goal. That will dictate whether you need commas or not. That also applies to Oxford commas.
If you follow a style that requires them every single time, then by all means, use them every single time.
If you have a more clarity-focused guide, use them when not using them would leave too much to interpretation. And if you aren’t sure if you could be misunderstood, that might be a good time to use the Oxford comma as well.