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For want of a comma

The Oxford Comma, so named because it first appeared in the 1905 Oxford University Press Style Guide, is the comma that comes before the word and in a series of three or more listed items. Also known as the serial comma, it’s the often ironic rallying cry of a certain type of language aficionado. And it’s in the news after a federal appeals court mentioned it in a court decision recently.

The court case was O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, a lawsuit filed by truck drivers seeking overtime pay that they had been denied under a Maine law. Maine labor law requires time-and-a-half for overtime, but makes some exceptions, specifically 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.

“Oakhurst Dairy, Portland Maine” by John Phelan. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is the question. Were the truckers at the dairy involved in compound task of “packing for distribution or shipping” of perishable goods. Or were they just involved in “the distribution” of perishable goods.

Since the truck drivers don’t actually pack the goods, one could argue that the exemption doesn’t apply to them, only to workers who do “packing for shipment and distribution” of perishable foods. But under the other interpretation, where distribution is a separate serial item, the truckers would be exempt since they are involved in distribution.

The judges opened their opinion by noting that “For want of a comma, we have this case.” The overtime payfor 75 workers over four years by the waycame to a $10 million, so this was an expensive comma.

But while the serial comma may have captured the attention of the media and the Oxford Comma fans, the decision was not just about punctuation. The judges noted that the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual say “when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series,” though elsewhere the manual warns against ambiguous lists. Maybe the writers of the law should have used a comma, and maybe not.

With that in mind, the judges looked at a wide range of language issues: parallelism, the semantics of the words “distribution” and “shipping,” the lack of an “and” before “packing”. In the end, they found merit in both the arguments of the drivers and the dairy. The judges concluded that “The text has, to be candid, not gotten us very far.” A comma would have broken the tie.

In the end, the judges decided the case based on a precedent that laws match their purposes together with public policy goals of the state. The truck drivers got paid, and we have a tale of the Oxford comma, law and grammar.

Featured image credit: “Oxford snow scene” by Jun. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. 

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