Contentious Commas, at Length

Of all the heated topics that arose at this year’s Town Meeting, the one that entertained me most was the question of commas — a perennial subject of discussion among editors, grammarians, and language enthusiasts through the ages. Max amended one article so that it added four commas. In legal matters, commas can be crucial; court cases have turned on the presence or absence of a comma. Scholars of the American Constitution have written tomes over the placement of commas in constitutional articles and amendments.

Here in Tuftonboro, we are not writing the founding document of a new nation (or are we?), but we still take our punctuation seriously. Commas usage over time has greatly changed, which adds to the fun and mayhem.

Max’s amendment passed, narrowly. Many of the “library crowd” boisterously voted “No!” on the four added commas.

The amended article now reads, in part:

“ . . . gifts, legacies, and devises” rather than “gifts, legacies and devises.”

This is the first comma Max added (after “legacies”). It’s the “Oxford comma,” also known as the serial comma. As the name suggests, it’s the comma in a series. Is it “red, white and blue” or “red, white, and blue”? We’re Americans, though some grumpy people now refer to us as Murican, to make a political point about how awful we are. I don’t think we’re so bad, and, in any case, we’re not Britons, so I prefer the term “serial comma.”

In Maine, a missing comma in state law recently cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million. In 2014, drivers for the company sued, alleging they were owed overtime pay. The Portland Press Herald reported last month:

A Maine federal court initially ruled that the drivers weren’t entitled to overtime under a state law that says overtime is not required for employees engaged in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” a handful of products, including perishable products such as milk, cheese and other dairy goods.

The drivers appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, where a three-judge panel unanimously overturned the lower court’s ruling in a 29-page decision written by Judge David Barron that explored the use of the Oxford, or serial, comma:

The lower court judge had ruled that the law exempted the drivers from overtime because they were involved in the shipment and distribution of the products. But Barron said the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution of” meant both phrases referred back to “packing for”—as in “packing for shipment or packing for distribution.” Because the drivers deliver the products but don’t pack them, they weren’t covered by the Maine exemption to overtime pay.

Grammarians have long debated, sometimes with great passion, whether to use the serial comma, and people who learned punctuation years ago probably were taught to avoid using it, except on rare occasions for clarity. Some publications, such as the New York Times, still hew to this style. When I worked for the New York Times, I did not use the serial comma.

Most of the publications and book publishers for whom I’ve worked—running the gamut from Time to National Review to Parents to The Week to Commentary to the now-defunct (and probably for good reason) Vibe—now do use the serial comma. Book publishers today generally use it. Chicago Manual of Style is the basic style bible for most book publishers, and here is what its 17th edition, published in 2017, says about the serial comma:

When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities . . . since it prevents ambiguity. If the last element consists of a pair joined by and, the pair should still be preceded by a serial comma and the first and (as in the last two examples below).

  • She posted pictures of her parents, the president, and the vice president.
  • Before heading out the door, he took note of the typical outlines of sweet gum, ginkgo, and elm leaves.
  • I want no ifs, ands, or buts.
  • Paul put the kettle on, Don fetched the teapot, and I made tea.
  • Their wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread and butter.
  • Ahmed was configuring updates, Jean was installing new hardware, and Alan was running errands and furnishing food.

By the way, the Fowler referred to above, Henry Watson Fowler, is an early-20th-century Oxford scholar who wrote the classic style guide A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926. It’s been updated many times and is still a standard reference guide in publishing houses. Before he wrote this guide, he and his brother wrote The King’s English, in 1906. Probably the kind of Americans who relish the term “Muricans” would condemn this latter guide as the work of imperialists.

Back to Max! He added a second and third comma to set off a “which” clause:

“ . . . gifts, legacies, and devises, which shall be invested and accounted for separately from, . . .”

Clauses that begin with “which” should generally be set off by a comma on either side; these clauses give supplemental info. Clauses that begin with “that” generally should not be set off by commas. See the entry for the word “that” in Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th Edition for a clear, elegant discussion of the distinction between “that” and “which” clauses. The great writer David Foster Wallace — author of Infinite Jest, “Consider the Lobster,” and many sparkling essays, including “Tense Present,” a superb essay on our current language-usage wars — considered Bryan Garner a genius when it comes to language usage. I tend to agree.

An interesting side note (or another one): Wallace introduced Bryan Garner to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They bonded over their shared preference for the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, and their friendship nearly ended over a disagreement about the use of contractions. Wallace—whose sentences minutely map the meanderings of inner mental landscapes, including side routes, associations, and reversals—liked contractions. He found them lifelike. Scalia, who wrote Supreme Court opinions meant to stand the test of time, thought them beneath the dignity of the Court.

Back to Max! Here is the fourth comma Max added, to set off the appositive phrase “paragraph 1”:

“RSA 31:19-a, paragraph 1, and . . . ”

As originally written, this clause had the first comma but was missing the second.

Of the four commas added by the vote at Town Meeting, the three to properly set off parenthetical clauses were grammatically necessary. The serial comma was optional, but, following Chicago, I’d recommend it.

Serial commas get people very agitated; one petite older lady, whom I’ve never met, chewed me out and instructed me that they are simply wrong and that my grammar was subpar. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” she proclaimed, shaking her head in disgust and scowling furiously at me as she harrumphed away. I understand her fervor.

What are people arguing about when they argue about punctuation? That’s a topic for another day.

Town Meeting came to a raucous close, and a good time was had by (almost) all.