The following recent news item hits to the heart of our mission at GrammarBook.com of educating our readers on the importance of communicating clearly through the use of good grammar and punctuation. Even though some of you may have seen or heard about this legal case, we felt strongly about reprinting it in this week’s e-newsletter. We are not surprised that such a significant court decision could result from unclear grammar or punctuation choices. In fact, we wonder why such problems don’t occur more often.
This specific case is an excellent illustration of why our Rule 1 of Commas recommends the use of the Oxford (or series) comma to separate words or word groups in a simple series of three or more items, because “omission of the Oxford comma can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.”
From The New York Times:
A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes: the dreaded—or totally necessary—Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.
What ensued in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and in a 29-page court decision handed down this week, was an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost a dairy company in Portland, Maine, an estimated $10 million.
In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy, seeking more than four years’ worth of overtime pay that they had been denied. Maine law requires workers to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carves out some exemptions.
A quick punctuation lesson before we proceed: In a list of three or more items—like “beans, potatoes and rice”—some people would put a comma after potatoes, and some would leave it out. A lot of people feel very, very strongly about it.
The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one, but it was anything but for the truck drivers. Note the lack of Oxford comma—also known as the serial comma—in the following state law, which says overtime rules do not apply to:
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.
Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them?
Delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but they don’t pack the boxes themselves. Whether the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence was read.
If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court on Monday sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor. It reversed a lower court decision.
In other words: Oxford comma defenders won this round.
“That comma would have sunk our ship,” David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, said in an interview Wednesday.
The language in the law followed guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which specifically instructs lawmakers to not use the Oxford comma. Don’t write “trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers,” it says— instead, write “trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers.”
The manual does clarify that caution should be taken if an item in the series is modified. Commas, it notes, “are the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language.”
“Use them thoughtfully and sparingly,” it cautions.
Most American news organizations tend to leave out the Oxford comma while allowing for exceptions to avoid confusion, like in the sentence: “I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”
But the comma is common in book and academic publishing. The Chicago Manual of Style uses it, as does Oxford University Press style. “The last comma can serve to resolve ambiguity,” it says.
—Daniel Victor, The New York Times
Posted on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, at 8:48 am15 Comments on Lack of Commas Costs Company Millions in Dispute