March 21:  Serial Comma Day

Today is the birthday of American editor and writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who was born in Mesa, Arizona in 1956.

Hayden is credited with one of the most famous examples cited in the serial comma debate, a debate about whether to use or omit the comma that comes before the final conjunction in a list.  For example, should you write, “I bought some apples, oranges and bananas,” or should you write, “I bought some apple, oranges, and bananas”? To exemplify her case for using the serial comma, Hayden presents the following exhibit, a hypothetical book dedication:  

“To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”  

As proponents of the serial comma argue, the omission of the comma before the conjunction results in ambiguity.  As illustrated in Hayden’s example, a reader might misinterpret the “Ayn Rand and God” as an appositive, identifying the writer’s parents.

Those who argue for eschewing the serial comma — also known as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma — claim that the presence of the final conjunction makes the use of the comma superfluous.  Most proponents of the serial comma will concede that in most cases omission of the comma does not create ambiguity; however, they promote consistent use in order to avoid the unintended confusion and hilarity that can sometimes occur when it is left out.  To illustrate this Teresa Nielsen Hayden cites another example she found in a newspaper article reviewing a documentary about Merle Haggard. The article stated, “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall” (1).

Another argument for the consistent use of the serial comma comes from a 2017 court case in Maine.  The delivery drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy contended that the law regarding overtime pay was ambiguous.  The law stated that overtime rules did not apply to:  “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution.”

The drivers argued that the omission of the final comma indicated that the phrase addressed only the packing of the goods “for shipment or distribution,” not the actual distribution of the goods by truck.  Their conclusion, therefore, was that the omission of this single comma made them eligible for overtime compensation. In its 29-page court decision, the United States Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the delivery drivers, awarding them their overtime compensation.  For lack of a single comma, the Maine dairy was forced to pay out nearly $10 million (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Think in Threes – Ready, Set, Go!

What are some examples of things that come in threes?  The most frequent use of the serial comma is for lists of three.  Brainstorm some examples of well-known trios, trilogies, or triads.  Consider people, places, things, or ideas. Once you have generated a good list, select and rank your top three threes.  You might say your gold, silver, and bronze medal trios. Identify and define each of your trios, and explain why each is worthy of three cheers. (Common Core 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. -Oscar Wilde