Punctuation matters. That might be surprising to hear in an era when semicolons and colons seem more likely to be used for constructing happy-face emoticons than serving their nobler purpose of making sentences easier to read, but a recent labor law case in Maine has brought new attention to the self-effacing comma. Or more accurately, the serial comma, also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma depending on where you're from, which comes after the penultimate item and before a conjunction in a series. In the sentence, "We visited Troy, Rome, and Utica on our way to Lake Placid," the comma after Rome is considered a serial comma. Do you need it?
That may depend on whether you're a judge. In the Maine labor case, three truck drivers sued a dairy for overtime pay in 2014, citing state law. On Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit sided with them on the ground that a phrase in the law describing categories of work exempt from overtime rules - "the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution" of perishable foods - was unclear. Why? Because it lacked a comma after "shipment," so the phrase could mean that "packing for shipment or distribution" was exempted, but not distribution itself.
For the court, then, a serial comma was a necessity, even though, as Daniel Victor of The Times notes, the writer of the law followed the rules of The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which dislikes such commas. Perhaps the non-serial comma that's caused the most contention in American history is one in the Second Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." What exactly is the purpose of the comma after "state"?
In one well-known ruling, a federal appeals judge concluded that its purpose was to confer on individual Americans a right to pack heat. But in an Op-Ed essay in 2007, Adam Freedman argued that this was a reach. The comma, he suggested, said more about the haphazard punctuation practices of the day than the framers' intent. "In the 18th century," he wrote, "punctuation marks were as common as medicinal leeches and just about as scientific." And besides, he said, nobody is certain how many commas the amendment is supposed to have, since states ratified different versions of it. (In any event, when the Supreme Court took up the case, it didn't specifically mention the comma after "state" - nor the ones after "arms" and "militia," which can also be puzzling to a modern reader.)
At The Times, the stylebook, sensibly, recommends against serial commas except when needed for clarity (in the example above, we typically wouldn't put a comma after "Rome"). Of course, one editor's definition of clarity is different from another's, so it's not uncommon for one editor to add a comma to a sentence only to have the next editor delete it. Sometimes, it calls to mind a remark debatably attributed to Oscar Wilde:
"I spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out." As for the comma in the Second Amendment and its purpose, that's a debate for the Editorial Board and Op-Ed writers. I'll just leave you with two excellent songs mentioning punctuation, one kid-friendly and one not. The writer is a staff editor on the Op-Ed page of The Times
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