Appeals Courts: Reports of the Comma's Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

Summer 2017

In this era of texts, IM, tweets, and hashtags, it is becoming easier to dismiss the importance of mere punctuation in conveying meaning. Some have even predicted the eventual phase-out or slow death of the comma in standard English. And what about the much debated Oxford comma, or serial comma? This is the comma used after the penultimate thing in a list of three or more, right before the “and” or the “or” (e.g., “paper, pens, and pencils”). This comma is already shunned by most newspapers, and some style guides, including the University of Oxford Style Guide (but not Fowler or Strunk & White), now deem it optional or generally unnecessary.

“Not so fast,” says the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. In a triumphant moment for grammatical traditionalists, the Oxford comma took center stage in O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, a class-action dispute over Maine’s overtime pay statute, causing the New York Times to declare, “Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute.”

Originally published in the Newsletter of the Eighth Circuit Bar Association

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Stephen P. Safranski

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Co-Chair, Antitrust and Trade Regulation Group

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