Not just a comma problem

Much ink/bandwidth has been expended in discussion of the serial comma, with partisans on either side making their case through outrageous examples. You’ve probably seen the ones about “to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” and “the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” One can easily construct similar examples on the flip side: “my best friend, Oprah, and my mom” and so on.

Sleeping orange-and-white cat with lolcat-style superimposed words that say "Stop arguing about serial comma. I iz tryin to sleep"

The problem often isn’t strictly a punctuation problem, though – it’s a sentence-construction problem. Whether your style guide calls for omitting unnecessary serial commas (Associated Press) or always using them (pretty much everyone else), it’s the writer’s or editor’s responsibility to ensure the sentence is clear and unambiguous.

For example, much was made of a court ruling in 2018 that granted a settlement to Maine delivery drivers because of a lack of a comma. The comma was a key part of it – the circuit judge even began his written opinion with “For want of a comma” – but the sentence was also not constructed well. The state law said people are exempted from overtime pay if they work in: “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 case hinged on whether “distribution” was its own category or part of packing. A serial comma before the “or” would have clearly included people who work in distribution in the group exempt from overtime. But if the writer were trying to clearly delineate categories, it would have been a better choice to word each category the same way. That is, wording the last category as a gerund (“distributing” instead of “distribution”) would have helped clarify that it was a separate category, if that was the intent.

So laugh about JFK being presented as a stripper, but realize that, serial comma or not, rewording a sentence to avoid any ambiguity is the best choice.

In any style, these sentences are clear:

  • to Ayn Rand, my parents(,) and God
  • JFK, Stalin(,) and the strippers
  • my best friend, my mom(,) and Oprah.
Comic showing JFK, Stalin and two strippers "with the Oxford comma" and JFK and Staling dressed as strippers "without the Oxford comma"

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