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The $5 Million Comma

We add it to almost every document we edit. We admonish our customers to adopt it and use it habitually. We are not following a fad or a trend; we are trying to save you embarrassment, misunderstanding, and even money.

What could we possibly add to a document that is so necessary and yet so easy to forget?

The Oxford comma.

Let’s start with what it is. The Oxford comma is a comma placed before the conjunction in a list of items, for example, black, white, and blue. That comma after the word “white” is the Oxford comma. There is a long and storied history about this that you are welcome to review.* However, in the end, it is only one extra keystroke.

The absence of this keystroke could cost you millions as the owner of a dairy in the United States discovered. Let us explain.

The distribution employees of a Maine dairy sued their employer for overtime pay. In Maine, some tasks are exempt from overtime pay. The State of Maine law on overtime in this case read:

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 absence of the Oxford comma after the word shipment allowed the workers, in this case transfer truck drivers, to claim that “packing for shipment or distribution” was, under this law, considered one act. What the dairy believed is that the law intended “packing” and “distribution” to be two separate acts; however, without the Oxford comma, the actions were appropriately construed as being linked together. The drivers’ argument continued that, since the drivers engage in no packing, their job is not exempt from being paid overtime. The court agreed with the drivers’ legal counsel and entered a $5 million judgment against the company.

It wasn’t even the company’s fault. That is how important it is to get this right every time.

Let’s carry this grammatical structure into business writing. This example will be fairly technical, but pay more attention to the forms of the words and the sentence structure than with the fact that it explains water meter technology.

Rule of Parallelism

The first thing we want you to ensure is that your series complies with the rule of parallelism in a series. The rule of parallelism, which is the technical term that teachers, linguists, and editors use, can be more accessibly understood as the rule of continuity of sets. If your series is a verb phrase series, all of the items in the series must be verb phrases. If your series is nouns, then all must be nouns. Simply put, the things in your set must be the same kind of thing.

A writer constructs a sentence that says:

These options include power steering and windows, as well as a large array of exterior options, parking sensors and someone to help you when you break down.

Obviously, we have one unequal item in the set. "Someone to help you when you break down" is an independent clause while the other two are nouns.

We have to correct that. After a bit of internet searching, it’s easy to see that there is an industry appropriate noun for "someone to help you when you break down." Let’s make this change:

These options include power steering and windows, a large array of exterior options, parking sensors and lifetime roadside assistance.

Adding the Oxford Comma

The sentence still has the appearance that parking sensors and lifetime roadside assistance are a subset of exterior options. If we just add the Oxford comma, we see a transformation:

These options include power steering and windows, as well as a large array of exterior options, parking sensors, and lifetime roadside assistance.

Now we have sufficiently separated the concepts of parking sensors and lifetime roadside assistance, and resolved the original dilemma.

Remember: your reader is interpreting things from their perspective no matter what you say, so you must make your perspective as clear as possible.

The addition of this comma is not going to solve all problems and it certainly is not going to change bad writing into good writing. This is simply one more tool in the kit that helps you to write a clear and understandable document.

Coming soon: “Choosing translators” (hint: it’s not us) and “Using colons and semi-colons in English” (hint: English has different rules from German).

* As a matter of fact, we recommend that all people who work in marketing communications subscribe to Dr. Lamberg’s blog. He is always informative and insightful.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

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