Let’s Get Serial

It has never occurred to me to start a cocktail-party conversation with Oxford commas or dangling participles or split infinitives. If someone else brings them up, I’m happy to participate, but generally those are topics for newsrooms and annual conventions of the American Copy Editors Society. I’ve seldom if ever heard grammar and style discussed over dinner, and I’m not aware of the Oxford comma ever making the news …

Until now! Just when you thought that subliterate tweets had taken over American discourse for good, a contentious grammar issue actually made headlines in March when Maine milk-truck drivers won $10 million in back pay thanks to the absence of an Oxford comma in their employer’s overtime guidelines.

Oakhurst Dairy’s official literature spelled out that the following activities do not merit overtime pay: “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 so-called “Oxford” comma, or “serial” comma (I’ve also heard “terminal”), is the comma separating the last two parallel items in a series of three or more. For example: Her dress was red, white, and blue. That last comma is the Oxford comma, used by writers and editors who adhere to Chicago Style, or who simply swear by its absolute clarity.

Now if you adhere to AP Style, or you believe that the directive to always insert the Oxford comma is unnecessary, even silly, then you would write the sentence this way: Her dress was red, white and blue.

Oakhurst Dairy lost its challenge to the overtime-pay lawsuit because there was no comma after “shipment,” thus joining “shipment” and “distribution” into a single item as objects of “packing for.” The distribution of products (the activity at issue in the suit) was not listed as exempt from overtime pay; only “packing for shipment and distribution” was. So a missing comma cost Oakhurst Dairy $10 million, and rightfully so. But the absent Oxford comma is only half the problem; there’s another issue in the sentence that makes the ruling a grammatical slam-dunk. I’ll come back to that.

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The debate over the Oxford comma has raged for god knows how long (and even has inspired satirical treatment by The Onion), although if (like me) you were taught by your English teachers that the serial comma was unnecessary, or (like me) you worked at newspapers where AP Style ruled, you might not have noticed. Adherents of the Oxford comma like to use rather extreme examples to prove its necessity:

I’d like to thank my parents, Gloria Steinem and Jesus Christ.

Now without an Oxford comma, you get a rather intriguing set of parents.

The AP Style camp would say that’s merely an exception that proves the rule: as with anything else, when there’s a clarity problem, recast the sentence. I’d like to thank Gloria Steinem, Jesus Christ and my parents.

I’ve come around to the Chicago view on this issue, in part because using the Oxford comma almost never creates a clarity problem (the examples that Oxford haters give in response to the above are far less likely to come up), and in part because of something I’ve learned over the years in training editors. Many perfectly literate editors are never going to be style and grammar geeks; in other words, while they’re capable of memorizing a rule and generally using good editorial judgment, they’re not going to obsess over the finer points of style, or learn more about grammar than they think they need to, or notice an exception to a rule they’ve learned—it’s easiest to simply follow the rule every time.

So, if your junior editors need a rule on serial commas that they can apply every time and almost never be wrong, would you teach them AP or Chicago? Game, set, and match.

Having said all that, I have noticed lately a more serious issue involving series, a form of grammar abuse that seems to be getting past editors with increasing regularity: the false series. And while the necessity (or not) of the Oxford comma remains amusingly debatable, the increasing failure to understand and apply parallelism is no laughing matter.

Parallelism in writing involves balancing like items (nouns with nouns, infinitives with infinitives, participles with participles, etc.) to promote clarity, prevent awkwardness, and improve readability. Sometimes the failure to use parallel structure is not wrong, but also not pleasing: I enjoy hiking, watching movies, good books, and when my partner surprises me with flowers.

But sometimes it is just plain grammatically incorrect, as with many false series:

He stole a soda, a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In this example, “soda” and “bag of chips” and parallel nouns identifying what he stole, but the last clause introduces a new predicate and just doesn’t work with the series; the reader will trip over “and” when a third noun does not appear. The fix is to insert “and” between the two parallel items:

He stole a soda and a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In the next example, I deliberately misapply AP Style to enhance the point:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts and I should always make sure no one was hiding in the store.

The first three elements of this series are parallel: “lock,” “sweep,” and “tally” are verbs forming infinitive clauses with “the instructions were to.” Again, the “and” signals a fourth parallel item and does not prepare the reader for the wild left turn. One fix is to reduce the series to three items, and recast the final clause slightly:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, and tally the receipts, and I also knew to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

But a better solution is to simply make the last clause parallel:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts, and check to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

Now, back to Oakhurst Dairy.

(Here’s the contentious clause again: “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.”)

If the company’s lawyers wanted to argue that the Oxford comma was optional and would not change the meaning of the guideline, they would still have a grammatical problem on their hands: “distribution” is not parallel with “canning, processing, preserving,” etc., which are gerund forms of verbs functioning as nouns. “Distribution” would have to be “distributing” to continue the series. Without the comma or the gerund form, “packing for shipment or distribution” makes grammatical sense only as a single concept.

There. I have written almost 1,200 words on series and Oxford commas, I have lost most of my readers, and I have decided to move on. Did you see what Trump just tweeted?

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

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