A prosecutor questions former Trump White House assistant Madeleine Westerhout on...

A prosecutor questions former Trump White House assistant Madeleine Westerhout on the witness stand about her job working for former President Donald Trump in Manhattan criminal court Thursday, in this courtroom sketch. Trump liked to use the Oxford comma, Westerhout testified. Credit: AP/Elizabeth Williams

There isn’t much that leaves me gobsmacked.

Chalk it up to nearly seven decades of observing my fellow humans, particularly the last decade or so — especially the last week or so — of the increasingly twisted spectacle we call public life.

Members of Congress lobbing insults about each other’s appearance during a hearing?

Sadly predictable.

An upside-down American flag symbolizing the “Stop the Steal” movement that tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election flying outside the home of a U.S. Supreme Court justice?

Sadly inevitable.

A professional football player telling college graduates during a commencement speech that women should forgo careers, get married, and embrace their vocation as wives, mothers, and homemakers?

Sadly timeless.

But I was genuinely floored by one piece of recent news — and it came from the hush money trial of Donald Trump in lower Manhattan. It wasn’t anything salacious or tawdry.

It was in testimony from Madeleine Westerhout, Trump’s personal secretary until 2019, as she described how his tweets are put together. He dictates them to an aide, she said, with instructions on capitalization and punctuation marks.

“It is my understanding,” Westerhout testified, “that he liked to use the Oxford comma.”

The Oxford comma?

Gobsmacking, on several levels. That Trump cared about the use of the Oxford comma, that it would make an appearance in a trial about covering up payments to a porn star, and that Trump and I had just proved that common ground can indeed be found.

Yes, I am a fierce devotee of the Oxford comma.

You might know it, or more easily discern its usage, from one of its other names — the last serial comma. It’s the comma after the second-to-last item in a list of three or more things, and if its proponents and critics have not yet come to blows over its usage, they have engaged in some serious verbal contretemps.

An example: I went to the zoo and saw apes, baboons, and chimpanzees.

The Oxford comma is the one after “baboons.”

Unneeded, you say, as you join the anti-Oxford side? Consider the absence of the comma:

I went to dinner with my daughters, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift.

For want of an Oxford comma, the sentence could read like Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift are my daughters.

This is not a pedantic debate. The Oxford comma starred in a 2017 court case in Maine, O’Connor vs. Oakhurst Dairy, in which truck drivers were seeking overtime pay. Maine labor law said overtime was not required for workers involved in: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

You see the problem. Without the Oxford comma after “shipment,” it’s not clear whether the exemption from overtime is for “packing for distribution” or simply for “distribution.” Truckers do the latter, not the former.

“The judges opened their opinion by noting that ‘For want of a comma, we have this case.’ The overtime pay — for 75 workers over four years by the way — came to $10 million, so this was an expensive comma,” reported the Oxford University Press Blog, whose interest in the lawsuit stemmed from the first appearance of the Oxford comma in the 1905 Oxford University Press Style Guide.

The point is that preciseness and clarity matter. Language is beautiful. Part of its richness lies in one’s ability to interpret it. But mangled facts thwart interpretation.

The Oxford comma might be a humble little curve, but as even Donald Trump apparently knows, its function is essential: It brings order to chaos.

If only we had such a comma for life.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.


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