Which way would you write this phrase: “red, white, and blue” or “red, white and blue”?
In Maine, a court case involving around $10 million in back overtime pay came down to just this: Is the comma before the word “and” needed in a series?
If you are thinking, “You gotta be kidding,” no I’m not. The case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, settled this month in a US Appeals Court in Maine, focused on whether some drivers deserved overtime. That decision—yes, they do deserve overtime– came down to the lack of a comma in one of Maine’s overtime laws.
Here is the Maine law stating which workers don’t deserve overtime pay:
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 problem is the lack of a comma after the word shipment. Is the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” to be taken as a whole? Or are the shipment and distribution two separate categories, neither of which deserves overtime? If the law had a comma after the word shipment, distribution would not require overtime pay.
The court ruled that the lack of a comma after “shipment” made the law ambiguous even though it follows the written guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual. The court sided with the drivers distributing milk, saying they were entitled to overtime.
The AP Stylebook, which most reporters consult for grammar issues, says the final comma before “and” is not needed in most cases any more than is a comma needed for a two item series (bread and butter; not bread, and butter). However, the style manuals used in colleges and universities do require the comma, and public schools where I live, in Georgia, teach that the comma is required.
There is a name for the comma before the word “and.” It is called the Oxford comma. I haven’t heard of a word for the lack of a comma, but for this discussion we might call it the AP comma rule.
Which practice do you use? The Oxford comma? The AP comma rule? Usually I use the AP comma rule unless doing so leads to confusion. Sometimes the AP comma rule can lead to what seems like an appositive rather than a continuation of a series, such as in “I want to thank my two political science teachers, President Obama and Hillary Clinton.” If omitting the comma could lead to confusion, I include the comma.
The tendency in US writing is to leave out commas when the sentence is clear without punctuation. For example, years ago I was taught that introductory adverbs like “now,” “later” and “then” need to be followed by a comma. Yet the comma in “Then, I went home” seems silly. I was also taught that compound sentences should use a comma after the first clause, but in the short sentence, “I fell and I hurt my leg,” a comma after “fell” seems ridiculous.
The first rule in writing anything is “Be clear.” If leaving out a comma leads to ambiguity, use a comma. Otherwise, unless you are following a particular style book, the choice is yours.
By the way, when Shakespeare wrote “To be, or not to be,” in Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet, he used the Oxford comma.