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Grammar Moses: When that extra comma really matters

Newspapers generally eschew the Oxford comma as vestigial, but we're not above using it when it adds clarity to a sentence. What kind of clarity? When it creates an undeniable separation between the final two items.

I view Oxford comma afficionados as belt-and-suspenders people.

They’ll tell you how adding a comma after the penultimate item in a list is how it’s done in literature and how it provides clarity (using it even when it doesn’t add clarity).

It’s there, you know, just in case.

Perhaps I just like to live dangerously. After all, I haven’t worn a belt or suspenders in more than a year now, because the elastic waistband on my business casual sweatpants fulfills the mission.

Newspapers generally eschew the Oxford comma as vestigial, but we’re not above using it when it adds clarity to a sentence. What kind of clarity? When it creates an undeniable separation between the final two items.

There are probably as many arcane justifications for the Oxford comma’s use as for its omission.

If I were a more committed columnist, I would tally the number of Oxford commas we would use in a day’s newspaper to show you how much space they take up (realistically, not that much). But I’d rather poke my eye out with a pica pole.

I usually edit out an Oxford comma or two on those rare days I step into the breach and actually edit news stories. But how often do I add an Oxford comma when it’s necessary? How often does my crew of editors do that? I just don’t know.

Maybe we should worry about that a bit more. Maybe the belt-and-suspenders sensibility of the Oxford comma fan makes sense.

To wit: Four years ago I wrote about a lawsuit out of Maine that claimed truck drivers were unfairly being denied overtime pay. The culprit? A missing comma.

In 2014, three truck drivers sued for four years of OT at the Oakhurst Dairy.

The state law denies overtime rights to those involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of agricultural produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods.”

If the Oxford comma were used to separate “packing for shipment” and “distribution,” it would clearly suggest that not just all the things leading up to and including “packing” were exempt but ALSO “distribution.”

Without the Oxford comma, it is unclear what the law’s intent was.

Guess what, folks? I missed the resolution to this case.

Thanks to reader Beck Hopkins for cluing me in.

According to the Portland Press-Herald, in February 2018 the class-action case was settled for $5 million.

(For those of you counting, there are two commas in $5,000,000.)

“(Judge) Barron said the lack of a comma between ‘shipment’ and ‘or distribution of’ meant both phrases referred back to ‘packing’ and, because the drivers deliver the products but don’t pack them, they weren’t covered by the Maine exemption to overtime pay,” the Press-Herald reported.

I’ve written before about how commas save lives – “Let’s eat, Grandma!” – but now we know they can cost a lot of dough.

Call Ripley’s!

Constant reader Stan Zegel sent me a story from the Daily Mail, which serves readers in the country that invented the English language.

“Mother, 69, who gave birth to twins aged 64 following IVF has her children taken into custody after Spanish court rules she cannot care for them.”

That is the web headline. As I’ve stated in previous columns, the headline generally hints at the broader story. Here, though, it basically tells the whole thing.

So, if I’m reading this correctly, the mother must have been four or five years old when she became pregnant (call Ripley’s!) because at age 69 she gave birth to 64-year-old twins (call Ripley’s AND Guinness!).

If remember my biology, elephants have a gestation period shy of two years, and that’s the longest of all mammals.

Another tipoff that my interpretation of this headline is off is the reference to in vitro fertilization, which didn’t exist until the 1970s.

When I read the story, I was able to surmise the woman gave birth when she was 64.

Don’t bother calling Ripley for that one. While it is a remarkable age for a woman to give birth, there is someone who did so a week shy of her 67th birthday.

Write carefully!

• By Jim Baumann, vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at jbaumann@dailyherald.com. Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at facebook.com/baumannjim. First published at https://www.dailyherald.com/news/20210327/grammar-moses-when-that-extra-comma-really-matters March 27, 2021