Well, there is one company in Maine that now cares about the Oxford comma! I had a related topic in mind for today’s post anyway, so when I saw this article (and several people sent it to me) I knew I had to write about it.
The Oxford, otherwise known as the “series” comma, is one of the more controversial grammar topics. A 2014 survey (who would think anyone would survey people’s opinions about the Oxford comma!) showed that 57 percent of Americans surveyed were in favor of the comma, and 43 percent were opposed.
So, if you haven’t read the story, a Maine company was faced with a class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for their truck drivers due to the interpretation of a written law. These drivers distribute perishable food items. Here is the sentence (it isn’t even a complete sentence ) in question — to which overtime pay does NOT apply:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…”
The only thing the drivers do as part of their regular job is distribute. If the comma were there, the law reads, “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution…” Aha! Here we see that with the comma, distribution is a separate thing, and there is no overtime. But when we leave the comma out (as it is in the official law), the last item in the series is packing for shipment or distribution. Clarified, this item would be packing for shipment or packing for distribution. There is no overtime for packing, but they don’t pack; they distribute. So all is good and they receive overtime.
Another thing to notice in the series is that all the items end in -ing (gerunds, we call them). If distribution were the last item in the series, it would not be parallel with all the other items: canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing (for shipment), distribution. While sometimes mistakenly written in a nonparallel way, the items in the series should all be parallel; therefore, there is yet another grounds to interpret the last item as packing for shipment or distribution, since this preserves the parallelism in the writing.
The appeals court reversed a lower court decision. The appeals court said that the lack of a comma raised sufficient uncertainty to take the side of the drivers.
David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, said, “That comma would have sunk our ship.” That simple little Oxford comma would have made distribution a separate item in the series and disqualified them from overtime pay for distribution, which is their job.
The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual specifically instructs lawmakers to NOT use the Oxford comma. So it is really unclear as to whether “packing for shipment or distribution of” is one item or two. We can assume either that the words are two items with no Oxford comma (no overtime pay), or one item where no comma would be used anyway (overtime pay). Either way, the series follows the Manual’s rule of no Oxford comma, and the Oakhurst Dairy could be out $10 million!
I personally am pro Oxford comma, and I don’t understand what the big deal about using it is. I know there are people who overuse commas, sprinkling them over their writing like salt . . . however, the Oxford comma, in my opinion, is not an overuse. It often clarifies: I would like to thank my parents, Steve Martin and Jimmy Fallon. (??) See?
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