Cranky About Commas

Maybe I’ve always had tendencies to be a cranky old man but as I’m turning into one I find great schadenfreude when the universe punishes those who are lax about grammar and spelling. It could just be my history as an English teacher but I find my already elevated blood pressure spiking when I see people misusing punctuation or not particularly caring if they’ve mistaken “your” for “you’re” or “to” for “too.”

It cheered me up, therefore, when I read that a lawsuit over an Oxford comma was settled. An Oxford comma, as I’m sure you recall, is an optional piece of punctuation used just before the coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” or “or”) in a list of three or more things. I think its use provides clarity and I suspect that parties to this suit – a dairy company in Maine and their delivery drivers – now realize the importance of clarity. The comma was omitted from a list of circumstances which would not qualify for overtime payments. Because of that omission, the drivers argued that they were entitled to overtime since the words “distribution of” were connected, without a comma, to “packing for shipment,” making that a single activity that wasn’t eligible for overtime. The drivers said they were only engaged in distributing the product which is NOT on the list.

I think there is an important point for any of us who provide written communication in any event. It bothers me, probably more than it should, when I read something from one of my connections that misuses language. I’m not talking about the vagueries of punctuating parenthetical statements or comma use for multiple adjectives. I mean simple things such as the examples above or “it’s” as a possessive. It’s worse when a company does it since you know multiple people looked at whatever was being produced as a piece of marketing or a social media post.

The settlement of the suit cost the dairy $5,000,000. That’s a lot of cheese. Sloppy proofreading can cost you just as much in how your customers and others feel about your brand. It’s not just the lawyers who get concerned with vague meanings and incorrect language. There are a lot of cranky old men and women out there who know the difference, and many of us are actually not so old (ask my kids who are bigger sticklers on this point than I am!). Is all that clear?

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Filed under Reality checks, Helpful Hints

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