STATES WHICH REQUIRE THE OXFORD COMMA IN STATUTES. Grammarians argue about the Oxford comma with only clarity and style at stake. For judges and legislative draftsmen, the “serial comma”, as the Oxford comma is referred to in the opinion I linked to yesterday, can have substantial legal consequences. For that reason, most legislative drafting manuals (which lay down rules for how statues are to be drafted) take a position on the serial comma.

Footnote 5 on page 17 of the opinion I linked to yesterday summarizes the positions that different state government legislative manuals take. It appears that only seven states either do not require the Oxford comma or even forbid the use of the Oxford comma. The others and the drafting manuals of both houses of Congress require the Oxford comma.

Maine is one of the seven states which disapprove of the Oxford comma. The opinion quotes the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which expressly instructs that: “when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series.” The opinion takes notice that the Manual rejects the Oxford comma even though it recognizes that not using the Oxford comma can sometimes cause trouble. It says: “The manual also contains a proviso — ‘Be careful if an item in the series is modified’ — and then sets out several examples of how lists with modified or otherwise complex terms should be written to avoid the ambiguity that a missing serial comma would otherwise create.”

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