By Chris Hollands
25 May 2017
Being a Brit of a certain age and fortunate to have a very good English teacher in my early years I have always pushed back on the use of a comma before the word “and”. Indeed. I spent the better part of 20 years working for American firms desperately trying to convince my betters in the US that they really shouldn’t be there and removing them from audit reports.
However, one of the things I do to earn a crust is to help people write better, more effective audit reports and I have had a lot of questions come up on the topic recently, so thought it worthy of some research and perhaps comment.
The Oxford (or serial) comma is found before the words “and” or “or” at the end of a list. It was originally devised by the printers Oxford Press (hence the name) and is essentially stylistic.
The comma as we know it was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer working in Venice, circa 1500. It was intended to prevent confusion by separating things, but as the comma proliferated, it started generating confusion.
There are two schools of thought: One plays by ear, using the comma to mark a pause. So, if you were reading aloud, the comma would suggest when to take a breath. The other uses punctuation to clarify the meaning of a sentence by illuminating its underlying structure.
This whole situation has come to the fore in the US this month in the US Court of Appeals. David Barron, a judge, said “For want of a comma, we have this case.” when deciding in favour of five Maine truck drivers who claimed they had been wrongly denied overtime payments by a dairy company with an inadequate grasp of English punctuation. The punctuation in this case was the “Oxford comma”.
Maine law says companies have to pay their employees time-and-a-half for work over 40 hours a week. But there is an exception.
Because the products spoil so quickly, there are no overtime payments for “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of agricultural produce; meat, fish and perishable foods.
The dispute hinged on the lack of a comma before the word “or” (see underline above).
The lack of a comma infers packing for shipment or distribution (i.e. putting it in boxes) whereas the inclusion of a comma (“…. packing for shipment, or distribution”) infers that distribution is a separate activity and thus falls under the terms of the contract. The truckers won their overtime!
It is the Brits who perhaps push back on its use the most and I have to admit after some thought on the matter, my original stance on outright prohibition is probably wrong!
Indeed, I hear that the Financial Times style guide says journalists should avoid the serial comma, but should insert it when it is necessary to avoid confusion.
Using a simple example:
- I love my parents, David Bowie and Tina Turner. (infers that the two singers are my parents)
- I love my parents, David Bowie, and Tina Turner (Oxford comma used in listing)
I think a rewrite works as well, along the lines of – I love David Bowie, Tina Turner and my parents.
You can see then that in an audit report the whole meaning of your finding, let alone the corrective action could at best be misconstrued or at worst allow the auditee to wriggle clear of accountability.
The problem overall lies with writing that extends beyond a few sentences. It is fair to say people are not doing enough of it and as I read through material given to me for use on “in house” audit report writing courses I find that a lot of them must be read twice to be sure of the meaning, long before I get to the spelling and punctuation.
I would always stress that grammar, punctuation and spelling probably only account for 10% of the story when it comes to an audit report, getting the findings right using Root Cause Analysis is far more important. However, that 10% can be critical in terms of ensuring the auditee cannot just reject it out of hand for poor writing style!
I am all for grammar and punctuation lessons, and have a section on them in each of my courses, but I must tell you that the real improvements only come from people querying what you have written and telling you how to do better. Longer writing exercises are the way to learn how your comma placement, for example, could get you into, or out of, trouble.
In the Autumn I am going to start an individual coaching programme with a large international bank for precisely this reason. We are going to get people to write things down and then work with them individually to improve their style and approach. In case you think this might be a waste of time consider this; my research tells me that more senior manager time is wasted on the production of audit reports than any field work or meetings. In a large team, just a 10% improvement will free up a huge amount of resource.
Article by Chris Hollands, a director of TomJak Ltd, a company which specialises in audit training and consultancy