The Controversial Oxford Comma Crops Up in Another Legal Matter—and Why You Should Care

by Loraine M. DiSalvo

Just a month ago, I wrote about a Maine court case that grew out of an omitted Oxford comma. For those who didn’t read it, a group of truckers successfully sued their union after some writer’s failure to use the Oxford comma resulted in an unclear sentence regarding overtime rules. (The Oxford, aka serial, comma is the comma in a series of three or more that comes right before “and” or “or.”)

Now, that Oxford comma has inserted itself into the news again, precisely because someone else failed to insert it into a sentence. Last year, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal vetoed House Bill 859, which could legalize the possession of firearms in a broader range of locations at certain educational facilities. We won’t go into detail about the bill, but you can read the Governor’s veto statement here.

Now, the bill is back in an amended version as House Bill 280, which will allow those 21 and older with a Georgia weapons permit to carry concealed weapons onto most parts of college campuses. It has passed both the Georgia House and the Georgia Senate, and the state is waiting to see what happens next. In the meantime, Democratic aid Stefan Turkheimer has identified problematic lack of clarity in the bill due to an omitted Oxford comma.

The provision, which deals with the exclusions for certain locations, reads, “…faculty, staff, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted.” As Turkheimer pointed out (and we concur) , by omitting the comma after “offices,” the passage could be construed as not allowing open carry for faculty, staff, and either “administrative offices” or “rooms where disciplinary proceedings are held.” In our opinion, this means that unless faculty offices are also rooms where “disciplinary hearings are conducted,” one or the other would not be exempted.

By inserting that Oxford comma, to read, “…faculty, staff, or administrative offices, or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted,” the intent is clear. Neither offices assigned to faculty, staff, or administration, nor rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted, would be locations where guns would be permitted.

We will watch with interest as the process continues, which is sure to include consideration of the legal consequences of this grammatical oversight. In the meantime, we remind our clients that precision is an unspoken rule of legal proceedings.

Attention to detail, such as 100% clarity in sentence construction, should matter everywhere. However, in the legal world, it can literally sway the outcome of a case, and lack of it can cause unintended consequences. That is one more reason why I am a stickler for the Oxford comma—and why everyone should ensure their attorneys pay close attention to it, as well.

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