3 min read

Breaking News: Lawyer Settles Oxford Comma Debate

It’s not a question of style or personal preference. A simple rule of thumb to avoid exposing yourself to needless risk
Ancient books on library shelves with marble busts at end of each row
Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

Greetings friends!

If you have an opinion about the Oxford comma, let it be an informed opinion.

I am informed that people have been fighting about it since The University of Oxford was founded in the 12th century, a full three centuries before the comma itself was even invented.

More recently, I spent 25 years writing and reviewing SEC filings.

  • When companies make a mistake in these public documents they face legal liability.
  • Expensive lawyers like me thus spend hours checking every sentence to ensure companies’ disclosures are clear.
  • This work taught me more than I ever wanted about the Oxford comma.

Here’s my simple rule of thumb about the Oxford comma that you are free to use yourself:

If you are a corporate lawyer writing SEC disclosure documents, use the Oxford comma or risk getting sued for malpractice.

What’s The Fuss About The Oxford Comma?

Simply put, when you list three or more items in a sentence, people debate including a comma (the Oxford comma) before the last item. They argue it changes the style of your writing and the look of your sentence.

People who did not go to law school lose sleep worrying about all the ink needlessly spilled when using a comma in sentences where it may be plausibly omitted.

“Think of the children!” they cry.

Jumble of typesetting characters
Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

Is There A Difference Between Using It Or Not?

The truth about the Oxford comma is that it’s much more than stylistic. That’s because the comma serves a specific purpose. And the clauses mean very different things when you use the comma or omit it.

When a sentence is ambiguous or its meaning is disputed, judges apply simple rules of construction (i.e. interpretation) to resolve the dispute:

  • When you include the comma, it means you are describing a list of three or more distinct items.
  • When you do not include the comma, it means the final two items in the list are examples of the previous item on the list.

What If I’m Not A Corporate Lawyer Writing SEC Documents?

I feel sorry for you. The next best thing is to imply to others that you do important stuff for a living.

How? You signal your importance to the cognoscenti by punctiliously using the Oxford comma.

Well-dressed elderly gentleman looking wise
The cognoscenti | Photo by Filipe Almeida on Unsplash

If small-minded people challenge you, I recommend adopting a superior tone and explaining that there are at least two reasons to use the Oxford comma.

  • First, you eliminate potential ambiguity when you include the comma. That alone is reason enough to use the comma and should satisfy most doubters.
  • If the person insists on hearing your second reason, tell them this. In the large majority of cases, you are in fact describing a list of distinct items. Only rarely are you modifying the prior item in your list with examples.

True, you’re probably not facing millions of dollars in legal exposure by skipping a comma. But can you really afford to take the risk?

Be well.

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This article appeared originally on Medium in the publication Bouncin' and Behavin' Blogs.