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The Oxford Comma

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I tend to use a lot of commas; probably using them a bit too frequently.  But there is method in it all, and the use of the so-called serial (or 'Oxford') comma can remove ambiguity.  Here's the Guardian style guide showing why this can be important:

A comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea).  Sometimes it is essential: compare

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis, and JK Rowling

with

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

All this has surfaced because of an arcane legal case in Maine about overtime payment.  As the Times put it this morning:

"The state’s law exempts the following activities from the requirement to pay workers overtime: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

It seems clear that State legal drafters may have meant to write: "... for shipment, or distribution.", but they didn't include the comma – and lost the case.  The judge noted:

“the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard”

There you are – a diversion.  And I'd really meant to write about the US draft budget with its proposals to ...

  • cut all funding for climate-change research at Nasa
  • cut all federal financing for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts
  • cut all the $3 billion programme that helps poor Americans to heat their homes will end, and all spending on items such as affordable housing and homelessness schemes
  • cut all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which currently receives $450 million a year
  • cut all payments to the UN Green Climate Fund, part of Washington’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement.cut spending on the State Department and the Agency for International Development (US Aid)  by $10 billion, or 28 per cent
  • cut contributions to UN peacekeeping
  • cut payments to the World Bank by $650 million
  • cut funding for the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research, by 18 per cent
  • cut the Environmental Protection Agency funding by 31 per cent cut to $5.7 billion

Of course, this is, as yet, just a shopping list which the Senate will have views about.  60% votes are needed for most of this, so we can expect lots of compromise – and commas.

PS, Here's the Economist with an optimistic take (and nice graph)

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