The Case of the Catastrophic Comma

Calling all strict grammarians, traditional linguists and elite readers – this one’s for you! Can you spot anything wrong with these sentences?

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

“Lucy ended up in the taxi with her ex-boyfriend, a guitar-player and a dog.”

“We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.”

If you said that each sentence is grammatically ambiguous, then you’d be right! The controversial Oxford comma – otherwise known as the Harvard or Serial comma – is a cause for heated debate among writers and editors of the English language across the globe, with some arguing its importance, while others dismissing it as pretentious and no longer necessary.

On one hand, those on the For side of the fence argue that the comma better resolves ambiguity and clarifies the meaning of a sentence, while those in the Against party debate that the comma actually causes more confusion.

In the examples above, the first two sentences need an Oxford comma before the “and” in both sentences, unless the author of the book has some incredible parentage, and Lucy had an interesting taste in partners! However, the third sentence, which does have an Oxford comma, could cause more confusion than clarity, as it could be interpreted that both a stripper named JFK and historical figure Stalin were invited.

Whatever side of this hard-hitting issue you lean towards, you have to feel a pang of pity for Oakhurst Dairy, a Portland-based company, who have to pay $13 million in unpaid overtime due to a missing Oxford comma.

The debated clause in question stated that overtime pay is not eligible for:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

I. Agricultural produce
II. Meat and fish products; and
III. Perishable foods

Did you notice it? In this case, an Oxford comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution” would have clearly shown a distinction between the two activities. Without the comma, the drivers argued that the clause referred to the two activities as one, and as the drivers distribute but do not pack the goods, they were eligible for overtime pay.

An Oakhurst Dairy truck leave the company headquarters on Forest Avenue Friday, Jan. 31, 2014, after the company announced its sale to the Dairy Farmers of America. (Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)

Before you fall off your chair laughing at Oakhurst Dairy’s expensive blunder, let’s turn the spotlight over to you and your business. Take the time to look over all your marketing collateral and online presence and ask yourself, “Am I clearly expressing myself? Is my business best represented?” If you spot any ambiguity, flag them straight away, and consider rewriting your work. Grammar, after all, is important.

If you ask the copywriting department at Messages On Hold about the Oxford comma, you’ll probably fire up yet another fierce grammar debate. However, as the copy we write is mostly to be spoken, hard and fast grammar rules are shadowed by the need to be clear, concise, and instantly recognisable.

When it comes to your brand, it’s best to ensure your message isn’t being misinterpreted, as there’s nothing worse than having your message muddled. (Although, I can think of something that’s 13 million times worse…) If a comma is causing strife, though, don’t just remove it, reword the sentence entirely and try again.

At the end of the day, something as seemingly innocent as the placement of an Oxford comma can weigh much more heavily on your brand than you might think, so save yourself and your company from an embarrassing blunder by keeping your eye on grammar!