CSI: Comma Scene Investigation – Curious Case Of The Oxford Serial Killer Comma

Chalk outlines are likely being drawn around this blog as you read this.

A team of CSI’s – Comma Scene Investigators – has surely initiated a forensic review of each line from each post and outlining where commas are considered missing.

If I ever was taught the ways of the Oxford Comma as a youth I don’t recall.

Which isn’t that egregious a crime since I don’t recall what I had for dinner last night.

You could even build a case around the probability I never even heard of the Oxford Comma until a few days ago when word came from Maine a class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers could cost the dairy company in question an estimated $10 million.

That’s a lot of moo-la.

Oakhurst Dairy’s description of what was exempt from overtime pay was even written following the comma guidelines set forth by Maine’s legislature…guidelines that specifically say don’t use the Oxford Comma.

The Oxford Comma is also known as the Serial Comma. Serial Killer Comma is more appropriate in this instance for its alleged criminal absence will kill some short-term profitability for Oakhurst if they do eventually lose this on appeal. (This decision reversed a lower court decision siding with the company)

An employee was not to be eligible for overtime pay if they were involved in:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  • Agricultural produce;
  • Meat and fish products; and
  • Perishable foods.


The prosecution’s punctuation play was with no comma after “shipment” it meant the dairy drivers have been eligible for overtime. A comma after “shipment” would have made it clear (maybe) the law disallowed OT for distributors of perishable foods…AKA dairy drivers.

Maine’s Legislative Drafting Manual not only states to shun the Oxford Comma (the final comma used before a coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more items as provided within Oxford University style guidelines) but adds this piece of evidence about commas in general: “The most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language.”

(Did they need two commas in that sentence? Perhaps…)

While I never knew I was committing a crime in the eyes of some I remain more surprised at the anger and comma-calling surrounding this subject. There appears to be a lot of folks out there who swear by the Oxford Comma…and swear at you if your opinion of its requirement differs.

The band “Vampire Weekend” released a single a few years back titled “Oxford Comma.” They swore over its very existence.

Consider me up-to-speed now…the debate has apparently been quite passionate on this topic for a long time. It’s a tad embarrassing feeling as if I’m last on the (crime) scene considering I possess a degree in Journalism.

I think after looking into this the two factions can be described as follows…

Team Oxford Comma claims using an Oxford Comma 100% of the time takes out any and all ambiguity you might have in being understood. Total comma clarity.

Team Comma Sense (of which I am a member…now) claims the use of any comma is defined from sentence to sentence and overuse of commas can lead to less effective communication. No comma redundancy.

The conversation has apparently been swirling around for ages but I swear before the court of public opinion it’s the first I’ve heard of it.

I’m surprised someone from Team Oxford Comma hasn’t called me out before now.

I’m not surprised an American legal document is being picked apart for its punctuation.

We Americans do seem to be taking up loud, passionate positions and discoursing away on everything these days. Some subjects would appear to be universally important to most…but importance is indeed relative.

I am proud to be a member of Team Comma Sense but look forward to any debates…arguments…to the contrary.

Do you feel I’ve committed a crime by not lawyering up with Team Oxford Comma?

Do keep in mind for any closing argument the evidence needs to be beyond a shadow of a doubt to secure a favorable decision, verdict or conviction.


About sportsattitudes

I'm Bruce. Born, raised and still outside the City of Brotherly Love. Managed (so far) to visit a dozen of our United States and Canada (twice). Addicted from birth to Television/Movies/Sports. Took three years of French and got credit for two of 'em.
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45 Responses to CSI: Comma Scene Investigation – Curious Case Of The Oxford Serial Killer Comma

  1. Jennie says:

    Great post! Yes, much debate here in New England over the dreaded or revered comma (your pick) and as you say, the associated moo-la. My English teacher who was tough as nails is smiling over this.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Dan Antion says:

    I am a lifelong member of team “doesn’t use commas correctly” but I’m married to an Oxford comma girl. She edits my writing and I accept what she suggests.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. LOL! I think I am on team comma sense (assuming I have common sense?) Now my question is about the use of …?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I wish I could ask my mother! She knew all this stuff. I am Comma Sense, I believe? I will use the Oxford but only for clarity’s sake. To me the ‘or’ worked quite nicely in the rules, but never ever mess with lawyers as they know more about language than anyone!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I thought all commas were…commas. The fact I don’t use a comma in all Oxford-prescribed situations means – I think – I can’t call my commas Oxford on those occasions I do. In any event I strive for clarity as well…and vow to treat all commas I use with dignity and respect. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. leggypeggy says:

    You should read ‘Between you & me: Confessions of a comma queen’ by Mary Norris.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Peggy, I came across Mary’s name while reading up on this court case. Based on your suggestion I went ahead and read up on her as well. She is a fascinating person and obviously takes clarity very seriously. Thanks for suggesting her book. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. aFrankAngle says:

    OK … count me in the group scratching their head on this one because I say NO to the comma in this situation. And the court? Oh boy (as I shake my head.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Frank, I think folks would agree both federal and state work rules should feature laws that are easy to understand and we shouldn’t have instances where lawsuits can tip either way based on these types of scenarios. Saw one column which pointed out the Fair Labor Standards Act is where most employment law branches out from and that was enacted during the Great Depression1 We need to clean this up on behalf of workers and businesses alike.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. reocochran says:

    I actually know of the band Vampire Weekend! Wonders never cease. 😉 My Mom was an English high school teacher. (Spanish, too.) She said commas were to put two sentences together and to include between items in a list. I am rather bad at over-using them! Silly me!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I submit this evidence for discussion and consideration.
    Scene from a melodrama- Two persons:
    “Has the doctor seen her, Fanny?”
    “Yes, and he said there was no hope,”
    “Has the doctor seen her Fanny?”
    “Yes, and he said there was no hope,”

    ‘Ipso Facto…Quid Pro Quo’ I say (usually just to annoy people who care about just phrases)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Jay says:

    I sort of love commas myself but I believe in knowing all the rules (grammatically speaking), and once you know them firmly, not being afraid to break them.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Bun Karyudo says:

    I tend not to use Oxford commas because one of my English teachers at high school thought they were an abomination not to be tolerated and so I never got into the habit. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about them one way or the other, though, and so I will sometimes add one if I think it’s clearer.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Dutch Lion says:

    You’ve outdone yourself Bruce. Solid column. Thanks for the link to the NY Times article. I read that too and found it very interesting.

    Count me firmly in the Oxford group. I remember learning this in my youth while in high school or at the University of Illinois in Urbana. The more I think about it, it might have been when I went for a Masters at Roosevelt here in Illinois. I recall being coached up on the Oxford commas in the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual and Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” books.

    I probably overuse commas myself but I’ve always felt they help when you’re trying to offset words or ideas. The example given in the NY Times article about the “parents, Mother Theresa and the Pope” prove (to me) why you need a comma. If you DON’T use a comma there, it implies your parents are Mother Theresa and the Pope, which is quite funny, no? If you DO use a comma, it implies you are thanking three separate groups which are your parents, Mother Theresa, and the Pope. Obviously a huge difference.

    Great stuff Bruce!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Reid, I totally agree there are definitely times where a comma is required in these types of scenarios. I also agree commas (their use and lack thereof) can create a huge difference in what is trying to be communicated. My only issue is being requested to use it every single time. Bottom line is we’re all striving for clarity and have to do what we feel serves readers best. Glad you enjoyed the discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. There’s a book called Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It’s a kid’s book, but the whole point is how the meaning completely changes depending on the presence, absence, or placement of commas. The title for instance is that it is supposed to mean a panda bear eats shoots and leaves, but when written with commas the Panda goes into a restaurant where he eats something, pulls out a gun and shoots, and then leaves.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Lois, I had not heard of it previously but relayed your comment to my wife and it jogged her memory – she has heard about this book. Sounds like the perfect story to address the subject. I’m gonna keep my eyes peeled for any armed pandas going forward. Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. reocochran says:

    They are always there whether we need them or not, also! 😉
    The legal ramifications of where commas are placed was a little beyond my brain power. Now, I must say the (almighty?) comma in combination with a period, when placed incorrectly, could be definitely a disaster when it comes to money!!
    My example: $100,000 versus $1000.00 smiles and I am on team “common sense!” Thanks, Bruce for this source of chuckles. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. George says:

    lol…let me know the last time there was polite discourse on a ten million dollar lawsuit. I shook my head when I read about this and your post placed it all in proper perspective.
    I wonder about the commas in the boxes of litigious paperwork associated with this lawsuit and if the lawsuit can be thrown out because of improper use of commas during the filing ofnthosnaom. A lawsuit over a lawsuit. Only in America would that be possible
    Great post, Bruce.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Steph McCoy says:

    😆I can’t remember if I heard of an Oxford comma or not but when I worked for Deloitte I coordinated projects for designers, word processors, proofers, etc. and my eyes would glaze over from the proofers having robust conversations over serial commas. It was enough to make my head explode. 😱

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I remember being taught that if you read the sentence as if you were speaking aloud, where you would naturally pause, you would include a comma. My college professors were horrified. My classmates, relieved. I graduated cum laude as an English major with an emphasis in Technical Writing, and I as I understand it, I should know better….

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for your comment KC. I honestly couldn’t recall ever being advised about the specific existence of the Oxford Comma. I’m sure I was taught “right and wrong” from professors’ points of view but decisions to use commas thereafter just happened…for better or worse in the eyes of each reader.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. kutukamus says:

    Now I didn’t know crime, sorry, I mean, comma, can be this scary. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Roxie says:

    hahaha! “comma” sense indeed! So, redundancy abounds, especially in legal terms, regardless of public opinion, and will forever drive lawyer briefs, as well as judicial benches.
    Oh dear lord! I am a fence sitter for sure!
    in the company of english majors i have been known to lose punctuation altogether
    blame twitter
    blame my southern education
    but i like flagrantly flinging aside language mores!

    Liked by 2 people

  19. I admit it. 🙋🏼‍♀️ I probably overuse commas…it’s the way I was taught. I just have a hard time writing how the internet “young-ins” want to read now. Ie words like kinda, sorta, and no visible sign of paragraphs…eek… it’s just so hard for me to make that transition.

    Liked by 1 person

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