The Hazlehurst Comma

By on Mar 20, 2017 in Language, Public Policy

The good old Oxford Comma.


For a tiny minority of people it inspires passion, even inflames it.

It turns out that minority includes some of my highly ethical colleagues at The Ethicos Group (Facebookwebsite), an integrity innovator and promoter of better decision-making in government and business, chaired by none other than renowned historian and author, Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Society of Literature, Dr Cameron Hazlehurst.

Cameron is one impassioned, even inflamed by this particular punctuation mark: he’s a great champion for it.

It was not surprising he felt vindicated by a recent media report of a multi-million dollar court case turning on comma placement. One media report is here. In sum, the presence or absence of a comma affected whether a dairy company was exempt from overtime payments both to workers who packed perishable dairy goods and also to those who distributed them (truck drivers).

The Oxford comma, so called because it was once preferred in the style guide for the Oxford University Press, is also called the serial comma. It is the comma after the coordinating conjunctive (joining word, usually ‘and’ and ‘or’) in a list of three or more things. It is often said to be an ‘optional rule of grammar’. (A purist might find the very idea of an ‘optional rule of grammar’ odd, even oxymoronic.)

The main argument for the extra comma in lists is to resolve ambiguity. Lists of two usually do not need the extra comma to be unambiguous, but lists of three or more might.

The example in the Court case was a statutory exemption from paying overtime to workers involved in the following activities with perishable goods:

“canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution“.

The underlined bit is where ambiguity crept in. The Court had to decide if the exemption from overtime applied to workers who were involved in:

  1. “packing for shipment or distribution” (the packers only); or
  2. “packing for shipment” PLUS workers in “distribution” (ie packers AND drivers).

The drivers won: the Court read the list, without the Oxford comma, as per 1 above. It would have been different (as per 2 above) if the list had included an Oxford comma:

canning, …, packing for shipment, or distribution …

It turns out Oxford University Press abandoned Oxford commas in June 2011. That opens the way for new nomenclature, hence this post’s title.

To amuse myself and my colleagues at The Ethicos Group, I penned the following, to show how commas in general are not needed, let alone the serial one. The very stiffness of the prose shows, however, that commas do indeed have important work to do …


Commas in Policy Writing

The comma (and the Oxford comma in particular) are important though merely part of the aim of clear concise meaningful communication (especially in factual and persuasive writing – don’t tell James Joyce to attend to commas!).

The current fashion is to eschew commas generally: they are going the way of the distrusted semi-colon; they appear less often; they disappear gradually.

I wrote another blog on apostrophes about the importance of grammar and punctuation  – in particular for writers of policy documents (documents intended to help decision makers reach the best available decision).

Policy writing is a sub-class of formal writing. It demands:

Legislative drafting was the subject of the amusing newspaper article about the court case. It has different intent. It is about future conduct: the written law states what one may or must or must not or might (under conditions) do.

It demands not just clarity but exactitude. How else can the intent of the legislature be discerned? What is exempt? Is it the packing of the perishable goods for distribution or the packing and the distribution? To pursue that meaning when there are millions of dollars at stake is not pernickety or cavilling: it can be an important inquiry into what Parliament meant when (under the drafter’s careful guidance) it chose to use a comma here but not there.

The lawyer’s comment in the newspaper article about the Oxford comma is right: precision of language may require one to set aside a text and start again.

The careful writer might avoid the Oxford comma precisely because it flags the need for a different way to present a list.

Not one comma!

PS. Joyce’s Ulysses without the words – just the punctuation – looks like this.