The curious case of the Oxford comma

Missing punctuation can have a heavy price. In this case, about $5 million

It’s the trial that gripped punctuation pedants everywhere.

In Maine, USA, a group of delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued their employer for unpaid overtime. In 2014, they lost the case and appealed. Now, they’ve won and the company is paying out $5 million.

And it all comes down to a contentious piece of punctuation: the Oxford comma.

What’s happened?

Maine’s employment laws have come under scrutiny. Specifically this paragraph detailing the activities that do not qualify 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.

The drivers maintained the final clause of the opening sentence meant ‘packing for shipment or distribution of’ was one activity – not two separate ones. They had distributed, they argued, but not packed the products and so were owed overtime wages.

The case hinged on the fact that the legislation hadn’t used an Oxford comma (also known as a Harvard comma or a serial comma). That is, the comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more things.

With an Oxford comma: The woman ate toast, cereal, and fruit.

Without: The woman ate toast, cereal and fruit.

Detractors say the comma is usually unnecessary and always unattractive. Those in favour say the fact there is room for ambiguity without one makes it a necessity.

There certainly can be ambiguity. This Sky News alert doesn’t employ an Oxford comma and suggests an unexpected relationship between Barack Obama and Raul Castro:
Semicolon to the rescue

In the case of the Maine employment law, there is no longer any room for misunderstanding.

The new wording says:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of

 (1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Clear as day, then.

Except, how do you actually use semicolons properly?

Well, a semicolon is there to join two independent clauses without using a conjunction such as ‘and’.

Grammarly’s blog offers some examples:

I ordered a cheeseburger for lunch; life’s too short for counting calories.


Money is the root of all evil; I don’t believe the reverse is necessarily true.

The key to correct usage is to consider that a semicolon is stronger than a comma but not as strong as a full stop. Maine’s new legislation has followed through on that to painstakingly cautious effect.

Content marketing and punctuation

The role of the semicolon, therefore, seems fairly straightforward.

But we all know language is a flexible beast. And as content marketers we also know that our job is to produce engaging, comprehensible copy that looks good on the page or screen.

So, for anyone pondering how or whether to employ semicolons in their own copy, the answer is most likely… nope.

You just don’t need to get bogged down in this stuff.

Similarly, you don’t need to fret over starting sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’ or ‘because’.

I’ve done it loads of times in this very blog. Because that’s how people speak and that’s how they listen. The example of the Hemingway app has been somewhat overused in journalistic circles – but it does at least make you think about being more direct in your wording.

Your content is being consumed by an audience that will appreciate that directness. While content must be well-written, it is highly unlikely it will be pored over in the manner of a long-read newspaper feature or a novel.

Short and snappy is the name of the game. Why dilute the power of a sharp, robust sentence by adding another independent clause?

And as for Oxford commas… well that depends. Using them adds a weightier feeling to your content. Something closer to The New Yorker’s highly traditional style than BuzzFeed’s casual colloquialism.

But you’re better off shunning them where possible, and only use them to avoid embarrassing confusion – à la Obama-Castro. If for no other reason than it makes the page look busier.

And grammatical mistakes undermine everything. Just ask the president of the United States, called out this week by a leading dictionary producer.

Merriam-Webster picks up on Donald Trump's latest grammatical error

The best thing you can do to avoid these grammatical minefields? Make sure you’ve got a great sub-editor.

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