If I had to name the single-most hated grammar rule I’ve encountered with my clients, it’s the Oxford (serial) comma. Oh my, the number of times I’ve been told “I hate that comma!” is staggering. And now that little ink spot could be worth millions to some laborers (details at the end of this entry).

If you need a quick refresher, the Oxford comma is the one that comes before the conjunction in a series of items. For example: “I want to visit Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York on my next trip.” The comma after “Vermont” and before “and” is the Oxford comma.

You might read that sentence and think, “I don’t need that comma. It makes sense without it.” Yes, you’re right. That one does.

But what about this one: The dress comes in blue and white, black and red, and orange and brown.

If you removed the comma after “red,” would the sentence be as clear? Would you know for sure what colors the dress comes in? Does it come in six different colors, all solid? Does it come in one pattern–blue and white–and four solids? Does it come in two patterns, one that’s blue and white and one that’s a combination of the last four?

As an editor, I follow my clients’ wishes. If they really hate the Oxford comma, I leave them out unless it affects the readability of the sentence, and then I usually make a note of the fact that I included it for that reason. I respect the fact that it’s not my book, and I follow their lead.

But the Oxford comma isn’t one that can be thrown out without thought, and there’s a court case in Maine that hinges on the very fact that one was left out. Drivers are suing for $10 million in overtime wages, and because of that missing comma, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals just overturned a lower court’s ruling that the drivers weren’t entitled to those wages. The drivers may still win their suit for those wages, and it’s all because of that hated punctuation mark.

If you’re interested, you can read more about that case by clicking this link.

If you’d like to discuss a writing project with me, please send me an email at sharon@editorsharonhoneycutt.com and tell me how I can help. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.