I am proud that my opinions change over time. Often this is because I get more information, but it is just as often because I start thinking about something differently. In fact, I’ll soon write an article about my changed thinking regarding the ellipsis. But there are issues on which I am rigid. And regular readers will know that one of those is the serial comma.
The serial comma is the comma that comes right before the “and” (and “or”) in a list. For example, “This, this, and this.” Many people don’t use the serial comma. So, “This, this and this.” The Associated Press Stylebook goes along with this. But it adds, “Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.”
The very idea of this makes me shake. Why?! Since you have to use the serial comma sometimes, why not use it all the time? The problem is that it is often not clear when you need a serial comma and when you don’t. If you always use it, you won’t have to worry about it.
When Bad Grammar Leads You to Court
A great example of the importance of the serial common can be found in a recent court case in Maine, Kevin OConnor v Oakhurst Dairy. In this case, delivery drivers were suing the dairy for overtime pay. The dairy claimed that the drivers did not qualify for overtime.
The issue all comes down to Maine law which says that the following kinds of work do not qualify for overtime: “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 question before the court was whether the last item in the list of work was “packing for shipment or distribution” or “distribution.” The style guide for Maine legislation is the same as it is for The Associated Press: no serial comma. And that means, we really don’t know. If the style guide said that the serial comma was always used, we would know that it was the former.
If “distribution” is meant to be the last item, then the drivers do not qualify for overtime pay. The first court ruled that this was the correct reading and so found for the dairy. The case was appealed, and the drivers won. It didn’t all come down to the serial comma. (How could it? It’s a mess with the missing “and”/”or.”) But if the Maine style guide simply required the serial comma, there would have been no question.
The Case on Grammar Grounds
To me, the appellate court is right for purely grammatical reasons. The way that the dairy wanted to read the legislation was clearly motivated by what they wanted it to say. Here is the list as the dairy saw it:
Items 1 through 8 are all gerunds: verbs ending in “ing” that are used as nouns. And then we have the plain old noun “distribution.” Why not “distributing”? Now I know that people write lists that are all mixed up. I have complained about this before, Illiterate Filmmakers: Last Man Standing Edition. But it is usually the case (as it is in that article) that the list is screwed up randomly. In this case, the list is perfect — except for that one item that happens to make the dairy’s case.
What’s more, “shipment” and “distribution” go together. So the obvious reading of this sentence is the way the drivers read it. You can get into other aspects of it. It just so happens that “packing for distribution” makes sense. And why would it be packing only for shipping that was exempt for overtime? (I doubt seriously if the dairy paid overtime for people packing for delivery.) It bothers me that the lower court found for the dairy. It doesn’t speak well for the objectivity of our legal system.
Just Use the Serial Comma, Dammit!
I suspect that on my deathbed I will be reminding people about this. “Okay, so my will’s in order. Good. Now promise me that you’ll always use the serial comma…” I find it shocking that we still have to talk about this. But even the writer of the article I linked to above seems confused on the matter. She wrote, “Opponents say that it’s redundant, aesthetically displeasing, and potentially more ambiguous.” I have yet to see a sentence in which the serial comma makes a sentence more ambiguous.
What’s more, I personally find the serial comma aesthetically pleasing; its symmetry pleases me. But in the link she provides for “aesthetically displeasing,” there is no discussion of aesthetics; the writer of that article talks exclusively about ambiguity, even quoting Bryan Garner that “its omission may cause ambiguities, whereas its inclusion never will.”
I’ll yield the point on redundancy. But a tiny amount of redundancy is more than offset by occasional ambiguity — some of which lands people in court!
 Note that when using semicolons instead of commas, one would never not use the “serial semicolon.” The truth is that the reason people don’t use the serial comma is the same reason that Americans use quotation marks stupidly: because typographers decided it. And typographers care about how things look, not about how clear they are.