A Few Choice Words About Commas

There are two schools of thought when it comes to using commas.

School number one holds that in the term “red, white, and blue” there should be two commas. That comma is known as a serial comma or, more formally, an Oxford comma.

School number two holds that in the term “red, white and blue” using only one comma is perfectly satisfactory.

School number two, dear readers, is sadly, sadly misguided.

Both in his work and in his recreational writing The Curmudgeon uses the serial comma; calling it an Oxford comma is a little too highfalutin for him. For work, he often edits his co-workers writing, and when he does he imposes his own standard: use of the serial comma.

He’s not quite the dictator that might seem. Whenever he gets a new co-worker he waits to see how that person uses commas. If that person uses the one-comma approach, he’s perfectly willing to let that person continue doing so – provided that the person writes that way consistently and doesn’t use one comma sometimes and two commas other times. If the person goes back and forth between the two approaches The Curmudgeon unilaterally imposes his own two-comma standard.

So far, in 35 years of writing for a living, he’s never, ever encountered a co-worker who clearly prefers the one-comma approach without also occasionally wandering into two-comma territory and he has therefore always – always – insisted that it be done his way.

He is, after all, a curmudgeon – and there are few things worse than a curmudgeon who has been empowered by his employer to be that way.

Realistically, whether one uses one or two commas seldom matters. In his own writing he may notice two or three occasions a year when using one comma instead of two changes the meaning of what he’s trying to write.

But in his eyes, those two or three occasions completely justify doing it his way.

A quick web search turned up a few examples of when you really, really need to use the serial comma.

Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.

They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook.

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

 After beating the Steelers, Tim Tebow thanked his parents, God and Mrs. Trunchull.

See how the omission of the second comma changes the meaning of these sentences? Try it yourself: add that second comma and see what you get.


So 99 percent of the time it really doesn’t matter and it’s only fussbudgets like The Curmudgeon who care AND insist on having it their own way.


You knew The Curmudgeon was going somewhere with this, didn’t you?

Sometimes it really, really does matter – $10 million worth of matter in one recent situation, as described by the web site “The Write Life” (and brought to The Curmudgeon’s attention by Mrs. Curmudgeon, who’s really getting the hang of this thing):

In this class action lawsuit, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued the company over its failure to grant them overtime pay. According to Maine law, workers are entitled to 1.5 times their normal pay for any hours worked over 40 per week. However, there are exemptions to this rule. Specifically, companies don’t need to pay overtime for the following activities:

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

  • Agricultural produce;
  • Meat and fish product; and
  • Perishable foods

Note the end of the opening line, where there is no comma before the “or.”

Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to list “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two separate exempt activities.

However, the drivers argued the letter of the law said no such thing. Without that telltale Oxford comma, the law could be read to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution. Distribution by itself, in this case, would not be exempt.

Without that comma, as the judge maintained, this distinction was not clearcut:

Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.

 As a result, the court found in favor of the drivers, costing the dairy an estimated $10 million.

Failing to use commas correctly could cost you bigly

So there you have it: use the serial comma or you, too, could have your meaning and intentions misunderstood.

And you never know when failing to do so could end up costing you $10 million.

The choice is entirely yours.

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  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On January 3, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    I have seldom agreed with you as vehemently as I do today. And I call it the Oxford comma. I don’t care if it sounds pretentious to these cretins who refuse to punctuate.

    Happy New Year!

    • foureyedcurmudgeon  On January 3, 2018 at 1:09 pm

      Glad to oblige. One of the more interesting aspects of writing a general interest blog is discovering which subjects inspire people to respond and this is certainly an example of that. I wrote it because, well, because I wanted to write it, but I didn’t delude myself into thinking that there wouldn’t be people who would read the title and say “Hell, no” to themselves and start browsing for cat videos instead.


  • By Venting a Little About Words | The Four-Eyed Curmudgeon on September 12, 2018 at 6:02 am

    […] about things like words and punctuation – as you can see, if you wish to refresh your memory here (commas), here (odds and ends), here (apostrophes), here (more apostrophe’s), here (overuse of a […]

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