Oxford Commas And Winning Cases

For want of a commaThe Oxford comma is subject to debate. It is the comma before the word “and” in a series. For example, “bread, eggs, and milk.” The comma between “eggs”and “and” is called the Oxford or serial comma. It separates all of the parts of a list.

Some style guides tell you to use it and some tell you not to. The Gregg Reference Manual calls for the Oxford comma (¶ 162a).

The thing I always remember that encouraged me to use the Oxford comma was an example of a will that left property to John, Joe and Sarah. If you are literal (as most lawyers are), you could say that the property was left half to John and half to Joe and Sarah to share. If you add the Oxford comma between “Joe” and “and,” there is no question that the property is to be divided into three parts—one for John, one for Joe, and one for Sarah.

In my opinion, it is one small piece of punctuation that can make a huge difference in the meaning and intent of what you are writing. In fact, as most of you may have heard, just last week, an appellate court ruled in a Maine labor dispute based on the Oxford comma. The case was about dairy drivers who argued that they were entitled to overtime pay for certain tasks. The company said they were not entitled to that overtime. The appeals court ruled that the guidelines on activities entitled the drivers to overtime pay because the guidelines were too ambiguous due to the lack of an Oxford comma.

Here is the law’s wording about activities NOT meriting 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.

Based on this language, is packing for shipment its own activity or is it packing for the distribution of the three things on the list? If an Oxford comma had separated “packing for shipment” and “or,” the meaning would have been much more clear. According to court documents, the drivers arguing for overtime actually distribute perishable food, but they do not pack it. That argument helped win the case.

The circuit judge said that had the language used the serial comma to mark off the last of the activities in the list, “then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform.” Since the serial comma was not there to mark off the last of the activities, the judge obeyed the labor laws which, when ambiguous, are designed to benefit laborers and the case was settled.

“For want of a comma, we have this case,” the judge wrote.

But even worse than that is the fact that there are guidelines on how Maine lawmakers are to draw up their documents that do NOT include Oxford commas, so they followed the guidelines they were given. At least they followed the guidelines last week. This week, that guideline may have changed.

Grammar Giggle – Advertising Matters

I pulled this out of my mailbox this weekend and noticed three errors before I even got back to my house. When the part of an advertisement intended to catch your eye has a glaring error, it really makes the company look bad. While they were consistent with their mistake, there was another anonymous placement of a comma.

Piano1

Piano2

Commas And Commas

andSomething that I see a lot in my daily proofreading is a comma before and. Apparently, the lessons in elementary school on serial commas or using commas in compound sentences have morphed into ALWAYS using a comma before the word and. Here are the tricks I use to help figure this out.

First, sometimes a compound sentence (which is a sentence of two independent clauses joined by a conjunction) is confused with a simple sentence with a compound predicate (the part of the sentence telling what the subject does or what is done to the subject or the subject’s state of being).

So when you have a sentence that reads:

Jamie was a paralegal and she was highly skilled in trial graphics.

you should read on each side of the and so you will read:

Jamie was a paralegal.

She was highly skilled in trial graphics.

Those are two independent sentences, so a comma is needed before the and when you make it a compound sentence.

Jamie was a paralegal, and she was highly skilled in trial graphics.

Where you have a sentence with a compound predicate, such as:

 Jamie was a paralegal and was highly skilled in trial graphics.

there is no comma. You can’t say:

Jamie was a paralegal.

Was highly skilled in trial graphics.

so it is not two independent clauses.

When you are confused about whether they are independent clauses or not, read each part on either side of the and as if it were a separate sentence. If it is a complete sentence, then put the comma before the and. If the two clauses do not make sense as an independent sentence, then there is no comma before the and.

Here are some more examples to help you see this concept.

He needed to go to the grocery store, and he was going to meet James for lunch.

COMPOUND?

He needed to go to the grocery store.

He was going to meet James for lunch.

YES – NEEDS A COMMA.

He needed to go to the grocery store and was going to meet James for lunch.

COMPOUND?

He needed to go to the grocery store.

Was going to meet James for lunch.

NO – NO COMMA  NEEDED.

The corporation filed its annual report with the Corporation Commission, and it paid the required fee.

COMPOUND?

The corporation filed its annual report with the Corporation Commission.

It paid the required fee.

YES – NEEDS A COMMA.

The corporation filed its annual report with the Corporation Commission and paid the required fee.

COMPOUND?

The corporation filed its annual report with the Corporation Commission.

Paid the required fee.

NO – NO COMMA  NEEDED.

I hope this helps with some of the constant “comma drama” that you may find yourself in daily. Email proofthatblog@gmail.com if you have any other “drama” that you would like to see as a topic of a future Proof That proofreading blog post.

 

Grammar Giggle – Happy Thanksgiving (and Commas)!

Among my many blessings, I count each of you who continue to read this blog, send me pictures, and post things you find on Facebook on my wall. The decision I agonized over a couple of years ago about whether to start the blog was definitely the right one. I truly do appreciate your support! Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Thursday

Generational Designations and Commas

JrWhen a father and son have the exact same name (first, middle, and last) the son would use Jr. and the father would use Sr. If a son/grandson continues with the same exact name, the grandson would use III and father and grandfather could continue using Jr. and Sr. or could change to II and I, respectively. The Roman numeral designation II can also be used where a child is named after another relative like an uncle or grandfather. Royalty would always use the Roman numeral designations. The issue comes with whether or not to use a comma. According to the Gregg Reference Manual, the trend is not to use a comma to set off those elements, but the person’s preference should always be respected. If you know that the person prefers the comma in their name, follow these rules:

  • When the name is on a line all by itself, use only one comma between the name and the designation.

John Jones, Jr.

  • When there is language following the name, use a comma before and after the designation.

John Jones, Jr., is my son’s best friend.

  • When the name is possessive, drop the second comma after the designation.

John Jones, Sr.’s car is being repossessed.

  • When the name is followed by a stronger punctuation mark–such as an opening parenthesis, a semicolon, or a dash.

John Jones, Jr. (he is the president of the business club)

  • When the name is inverted, for example in a list in alphabetical order by last name, set off the designation with commas.

Jones, John K., Jr.

When preparing a letter from someone using the Jr., Sr., I, II, or III designation, you do not need to use the designation in the reference initials unless you need it to distinguish this person from another person in the same organization. For instance, a letter I type for Henry R. Miller, Jr. at Miller and Miller Law, P.C., a firm where his father also works, would show the reference initials hrmjr/kas.

Remember that these rules are in instances where the person prefers a comma before their generational designation. In cases where they do not prefer a comma, all of this information is unnecessary, but hopefully at least interesting.

Dates and Commas

Dates seem to be confusing for some people. When you use a complete date (month, day, and year), you should use a comma before AND after the year.

  • On November 11, 2013, the Veterans’ Day parade will start at 10 a.m., but I will be at work.
  • Please send me your time entries for November 1 to December 31, 2012, so I can prepare the fee application.

Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, if other punctuation is necessary after the year, you would omit the comma immediately after the year.

  • On November 11, 2013 (the federal Veterans’ Day holiday), I will miss the parade because I am working.

Also, if the date is in the day, month, year style (13 November 2013), there are no commas unless the sentence requires a comma for another reason.

Where a comma after the year might lead to some confusion, use a semicolon.

  •  Our office will be closed on November 27, 28, and 29, 2013; December 23, 24, and 25, 2013; and January 1, 2, and 3, 2014.

Note that my office will NOT be closed on all of those days. Unfortunately, it is for illustrative purposes only and I will be hard at work on most of those days.

Where you are using just the month and year, there are no commas unless the sentence needs it for another reason.

  • The September 2013 totals show a rise in sales.
  •  We spent most of September 2013, the wettest September on record, trying to keep the water from coming into the house. [Here the commas set off a descriptive expression.]

Don’t be afraid of commas with dates, just learn to use them correctly.

Nonessential Phrases, and Subsequently, Commas Setting Them Off Are Often Misused.

4212122_sFor some reason, I’ve been seeing this issue a lot lately–the comma with the word “and.” A basic rule with commas is their use to set off nonessential phrases. Unfortunately, for some reason, people think that a comma always belongs before the word “and.” Note this example:

  • The information is collected and analyzed and will be used to develop resources to strengthen other departments, and ultimately, our ability to work as a cohesive team.

 

Do you see the problem? When you take out the nonessential phrase set off by commas “and ultimately,” the sentence doesn’t make sense:

  • The information is collected and analyzed and will be used to develop resources to strengthen other departments our ability to work as a cohesive team.

 

So in reality “and ultimately” is NOT a nonessential phrase, only “ultimately” is:

  • The information is collected and analyzed and will be used to develop resources to strengthen other departments and our ability to work as a cohesive team.

 

Thus, the commas should be around the word “ultimately” ONLY.

Here is another example:

  • . . . defend and indemnify XYZ Corporation in the Litigation and/or settle the Litigation on XYZ Corporation’s behalf, and if so, whether ABC Corporation breached that contract.

 

Again, if you take out what appears to be the nonessential phrase because it is set off by commas, it doesn’t make sense:

  • . . . defend and indemnify XYZ Corporation in the Litigation and/or settle the Litigation on XYZ Corporation’s behalf whether ABC Corporation breached that contract.

 

So the true intent was to set off “if so” as the nonessential phrase:

  • . . . defend and indemnify XYZ Corporation in the Litigation and/or settle the Litigation on XYZ Corporation’s behalf and whether ABC Corporation breached that contract.

 

The correct use of commas should be:

  • . . . defend and indemnify XYZ Corporation in the Litigation and/or settle the Litigation on XYZ Corporation’s behalf and, if so, whether ABC corporation breached that contract.

 

The best check while proofreading is to read the sentence without the “nonessential” phrase to see if it is truly nonessential. That should be your clue as to whether commas are needed and, if so, where they should be correctly placed.

Grammar Giggles – The Royal Birth

I couldn’t resist passing this one on.  I’m not sure if they call the hospital delivery areas “Labor iPods” in England or if Kate’s iPod and laptop were delivered while she was in labor (and is this really headline news?).  Use of commas can make a difference!

Labor iPod

Commas–More is Not Better

Commas are a mark of punctuation that seems to confuse a lot of people. Here are some common comma issues:
  • Commas may be needed to set off a nonessential description. For instance, when I refer to “my grandson Jasper,” there is no comma between “grandson” and “Jasper” because if I just said “my grandson,” you wouldn’t know which of my three grandsons I was talking about. If I only had one grandson, I could set it off with commas because I could take that name out of the sentence and it wouldn’t change the meaning. If I was saying something about “President of the United States, Barack Obama,” the comma is OK because if you deleted his proper name, you would still know who I was talking about. If it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence to take it out and the sentence still makes sense, use commas. If you need that language for the sentence to make sense, take the comma(s) out.
  • With dates, the proper rule is to set off the year in complete dates with commas. “He started on February 23, 2011, in his new position.”
  • Just because serial commas are correct does not mean that every time the word “and” appears, it should have a comma in front of it.  
  • A comma’s intent is not to be used each time you would take a breath or pause in reading the writing. While that may be a good guide, it is not a good rule.
  • Some words are always preceded and followed by commas: 
    • i.e. (that is)
    • e.g. (for example)
    • etc.
    • et al. (when it follows two or more names)
Commas have their place, just not necessarily as many places as people seem to want to put them.