The Oxford Comma is an optional comma placed before the last item in a list. Like this: Newspapers are meant for informing the community, being a government watchdog, and interpreting the news. Did you see it? I’ll show it to you again: I like eating, my dogs, and my family. What would that last sentence look like without the Oxford Comma? I like eating, my dogs and my family. It implies what you enjoy eating rather than distinguishing your likes individually.
In the newspaper world, Oxford Commas aren’t used. The Associated Press states newspapers should only include it when not using it would cause confusion.
In school, we’re mostly taught to employ the Oxford Comma. Every list has one. Professionally, which for me has been the last 12 years, the punctuation has been fired. We don’t use it. AP style says don’t do it, and we agreed.
Ask your friends online their opinions of commas and you get very different answers. Among my English teacher friends, grammar and punctuation is as hot a topic as politics. Rightly so, especially considering the lack of grammar seen on social media and in real life these days. We’re passionate people, and using the wrong words, the wrong contractions, or an apostrophe to make a word plural boils our blood.
Then something happened. In 2018, a Maine dairy company settled a lawsuit over an overtime dispute that was the subject of a ruling hinging on the use of the Oxford comma. Drivers with Oakhurst Dairy filed the lawsuit in 2014 seeking more than $10 million. Court documents filed in 2018 showed that they settled for $5 million.
I didn’t see the news story when it broke in 2018. It happened across my Facebook newsfeed in January. Reading through the news of the lawsuit, without going into detail here, the farmers were able to site the missing Oxford Comma to show that they, too, deserved overtime pay.
That’s all it took. The Supreme Court ruled that the punctuation was necessary, so our newsroom decided this year that we’re rehiring the Oxford Comma. You’ll notice it throughout the stories we write from now on. The unassuming, quiet comma will appear in places it’s never appeared in a newspaper. It won’t jump out at you, rather it will make its display unobtrusively in the lists ready to clarify the items you’re reading.
By Denise DuBois, Executive Editor