March 23, 2015 Articles

The Serial Comma in Interpreting Criminal Statutes

The placement of a comma can be critical in a criminal statute.

By Kele Onyejekwe

A serial comma is the last comma in a list before the conjunction and or or. It eliminates ambiguity or guesswork as to the legislator’s intent. Look at this sentence: “This article is dedicated to my readers, judges and legislators.” Is the article dedicated to two groups (judges and legislators) or to three (readers, judges, and legislators)? A serial comma easily removes the ambiguity. “This article is dedicated to my readers, judges, and legislators.” Now, there are clearly three groups. Here is another example: “The chapters in the code are: constitution, crime, environment, property and tax, securities, and evidence.” The comma after ‘securities’ indicates that it is a separate chapter from ‘evidence’ unlike ‘property and tax’, which is one chapter. When there is no serial comma, the legislator intends the final entries in the series to be joined as one.

Aristophanes of Byzantium, a librarian in Alexandria, Egypt, invented the comma as a system of speech-pauses, in 200 B.C. Its current form descended from the Italian printer Aldus Manutius in the 1400s. Comma’s Greek name, meaning “a piece cut off,” was acquired by the 1500s. It is the most commonly used punctuation mark. Correctly used, it separates ideas, elements, and items in a series within a sentence.

The comma appears 376 times in the U.S. Constitution. It is integral to the meaning of the document. In colonial England, legislation passed parliament without punctuation, which was subsequently inserted by staff. The founding fathers of our Constitution chose instead to include punctuations in drafts to be debated. In a criminal statute, the placement of a comma can be critical. Ambiguous statutes are resolved in favor of the accused because criminal statutes are strictly construed. See, e.g., Rewis v. United States, 401 U.S. 808, 812 (1971); Ward v. People, 58 V.I. 277, 287 (V.I. 2013). Ambiguities created by the absence of the serial comma benefit the accused. Recently, challenging a conviction under Virgin Islands’ felony murder statute, I was amazed at the overwhelming extent to which courts, legislatures, and legal writers favor the serial comma.

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