Well, actually … (thoughts on an Oxford comma)

First, here’s a link to the story I’m about to discuss. Read that and come back when you’re finished. I’ll be here.

::goes to get coffee::

Ready? Okay. Here’s the thing. The court claims that without a comma before the coordinating conjunction “or,” the meaning of the wording is ambiguous.

I beg to differ. There’s absolutely no reason to put a comma there, and doing so doesn’t help clarify anything (because it doesn’t belong there in the first place).

The court’s logic (such as it is) says that “distribution” isn’t intended to be part of the same process, because it isn’t a gerund (a verbal ending in -ing, like canning, processing packing, and shipping). I call bullshit. I used to work in a warehouse. Granted, we didn’t can things (we molded precision silicone products), but without all those processes that come before, neither shipping nor distribution can happen. You have to do all of the steps, in the proper order, to pack anything to ship or distribute. (How those things differ is still lost on me, but I suspect it has to do with the destination of the product. Shipping, to me, implies “to the customer,” and distribution implies “to a center from which it will be, well, shipped to the customer.” So. Okay. Anyway …)

Sticking a comma where the court claims there should be one yields this: “blah blah blah, packing for shipping, or distribution.” So you don’t pack it to distribute it? Do you do any of that other stuff that came before? OF COURSE YOU DO. Sorry for shouting, but this is ridiculous. Now, I can’t claim to know precisely how this should be clarified, but here’s an idea: put an “and” before “packing,” with or without a serial (Oxford) comma. “Blah, blah, blah, and packing for shipping or distribution.” Then it’s very clear that “packing” is part of the entire process that precedes shipping or distribution. Put a comma after
“packing,” if you really want to; it doesn’t help, but it doesn’t hurt, either. As I said back there, you cannot distribute without packing. You cannot ship without packing, either. “Shipping” and “distribution” both function as objects of the preposition “for” in this statement. They’re nouns (or noun phrases, to update my terminology), and it doesn’t matter an iota that one’s a gerund and one isn’t.

Not an iota.

Well, there’s my grammar rant. I’m not a lawyer. I’m an editor and a damn good one. The court’s suggestion makes no sense, grammatically speaking. That’s all I’m sayin’.


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