A few months ago, a $10-million Maine lawsuit involving overtime pay for dairy workers was decided on the basis of the lack of an Oxford comma. The problem lay in the following list of activities for which workers could not receive overtime pay, to wit, “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution…”
In a Talmudic-style argument worthy of inclusion in the Passover Haggadah, the debate hinged on whether it was a list of eight activities [(1) canning, (2) processing, (3) preserving, (4) freezing, (5) drying, (6) marketing, (7) storing, (8) packing for shipment or distribution] or nine [(1) canning, (2) processing, (3) preserving, (4) freezing, (5) drying, (6) marketing, (7) storing, (8) packing for shipment or (9) distribution]. The employers maintained that it was a list of nine activities and that distribution is exempt from overtime. The workers argued that it was a list of eight items and only “packing for…distribution” was exempt from overtime but not distribution itself. Due to the lack of a comma, the court agreed that this was a reasonable interpretation.
You wouldn’t believe how many people gleefully forwarded me this article or tagged me in posts about it. You see, I am no fan of the Oxford comma and this was “proof” that my grammar opponents are correct.
The Oxford, or serial, comma is the comma that comes before the conjunction in such phrases as “pencils, paper, and rubber bands” or “pancakes, oatmeal, or eggs.” Those phrases, however, are equally clear without the serial comma:
“I need pencils, paper and rubber bands.”
“Would you like pancakes, oatmeal or eggs for breakfast?”
For this reason, some people (like the AP, the New York Times and me) consider the Oxford comma to be an ugly, unnecessary waste of space in most cases.
The operative words are “in most cases.” Sometimes it’s necessary to include the Oxford comma for clarity. I acknowledge that. It’s equally true that sometimes it should be omitted for clarity but my opponents typically refuse to cede that point. They invariably provide a sentence in which the lack of an Oxford comma creates ambiguity, such as:
“I would like to thank my parents, Lady Gaga and King Kong.”
The absence of a serial comma in that sentence certainly leaves open the possibility that the speaker is the offspring of a pop star and a giant ape. I then counter with an example in which the presence of a serial comma creates ambiguity, like:
“I invited my mother, Maya Angelou, and the Pope.”
There, the Oxford comma leaves open the possibility that Maya Angelou was my mother (she wasn’t), a misconception that would be avoided with the removal of a comma.
Here’s a real-life example that I recently noticed in which a comma (albeit not a serial comma) can change a sentence’s meaning. The Shemoneh Esrei, in birkas Avodah (the one that starts r’tzei), reads in Hebrew, “R’tzei Hashem Elokeinu b’amcha Yisroel u’v’sfilosam v’hasheiv es ha’avodah lidvir beisecha v’ishei Yisroel u’sfilosam b’ahava s’kabeil b’ratzon….” In English, “Be pleased, Hashem our God, with Your nation Israel and with their prayer and return the service to the Holy of Holies of Your Temple and the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer with love accept with favor….”
So where does the phrase “fire-offering of Israel” (ishei Yisroel) belong? The way I learned it, and the way I parse it when I daven for the amud, is “return the service to the Holy of Holies of Your Temple and the fire-offerings of Israel, and their prayer with love accept with favor…” but I have also seen it broken down by some translations (including Rabbi Sacks and ArtScroll) as “return the service to the Holy of Holies of Your Temple, and the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer with love accept with favor….” I hesitate to call either interpretation wrong but the intention of Shimon HaPakuli and Rabban Gamliel (who standardized the text of Shemoneh Esrei) is certainly unclear.
In Jewish law, the same activity can be required in one context and prohibited in another. For example, we are not permitted to kill people on a whim – that’s called murder. But there are situations in which we might be permitted or even required to kill, such as in the defense of innocents. We don’t drive on Shabbos but we might require it if someone needs to go to the hospital. We don’t eat on Yom Kippur but we might require it if someone is dangerously ill. These exceptions to the standard operating procedures are not optional. One can’t opt out of calling Hatzalah on Shabbos when necessary, or even out of killing someone pursuing an innocent with murderous intent if that’s what it takes to save the intended victim. Context matters.
If we can accept that halacha conforms to context, should we be any stricter with the rules of punctuation? Whether you agree with my colleagues who feel that the Oxford comma is necessary, or whether you’re correct like me in viewing it as a hideous aberration of all that is good and pure in the world, one should concede in cases where clarity is threatened by dogma. The rules exist to aid communication; if communication suffers, the rule has failed in that particular instance and we have to deal with it. If halacha allows sufficiently-ill people to eat on Yom Kippur, we can learn to be flexible with a comma every now and then.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.