I’ll Take an Oxford Comma for $10 million, Alex

Mar 2017

As a business owner, I can’t imagine how ticked off I’d be if I lost a legal battle like this. But as a writer who focuses on corporate positioning and messaging, I love the story: it resonates in some pretty important ways.

Most people who make their living with words have an opinion on the Oxford comma. Do I, or do I not, add one more comma after the penultimate term in a list? A seemingly harmless debate, but as we now know, the absence of a comma in a critical spot cost Maine’s Oakhurst Dairy $10 million in overtime wages (pending another appeal, of course).

That a single comma can be worth millions of dollars makes one pause. It should. Here’s why:

Precision matters, today more than ever.  The tools we use to conduct the lion’s share of our written communications prioritize speed, brevity and the facilitation of multiple simultaneous conversations. [Whoops, I typed that without an Oxford comma!] Most of us will admit that, while these tools have made us more efficient, better connected and well-informed [again!!], they’ve also led to deterioration in our writing craft.

And what a time for that to happen: Technology hasn’t just enabled us to write more quickly and sloppily; it’s enabled the world to form perceptions in as much time as it takes to read a text or Twitter post and form a “take”. In today’s world, fact can be less objective truth than the product of one’s confirmation bias. In the hair-trigger stock market, for example, where a lot of my writing for clients gets read and interpreted, misplaced words and unclear messages can create or destroy enormous corporate value, not to mention hard-won reputation.

And that’s just readers acting on what we write, either not thinking things through or twisting intended meanings to their own advantage. They are also being misled intentionally as writers with an agenda capitalize on this accelerated speed of thought to create memes that range from silly to outright dangerous. Steve Jobs’ famed “reality distortion field” used to be laughed off as a brilliant motivational and marketing technique. Reality distortion has now, however, taken an unfortunate turn in our daily lives.

Oakhurst Dairy’s travails provide a timely and important reminder that precision matters. We live in a world where every thought that escapes our lips, pens and keyboards [one more!] is processed by our audiences in near real-time. Mistakes can have virally negative implications, and recovery is a steep uphill climb.

Personally, I’ve long been ambivalent about the Oxford comma. Earlier in my career I was an advocate, but so many editors, teachers, clients and others have stricken it from my draft prose over the years that somewhere along the way I caved. It’s time to rethink that. Actually, let’s not stop there: the Case of the Missing Oxford Comma tells us all to put a little more thought into everything we write.

Originally Published on LinkedIn

Source: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ill-take-oxford-comma-10-million-alex-jeff-majtyka/