$10 million lawsuit settled by an Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma is a much-debated piece of punctuation. The famous (or for some infamous) AP Style Guide says that the “serial comma” is not required and many, many publications and websites follow this advice.

If you’re not sure what an Oxford (or “serial”) comma is, it’s the comma before the last item in a list that comes before the “and”.

Let’s grab some beer, wine, and vodka vs. Let’s grab some beer, wine and vodka.

I’ve gone to war over the Oxford comma, as it’s something I insist on for clarity and always, always use. I’ve never understood the almost religious fervour with which people who don’t like the Oxford comma go out of their way to remove it, especially when those same people seem to scatter apostrophes through a text like salt on chips.

With the Oxford comma, there is a guaranteed clarity that the last two items are not a single unit (unless they are like “Let’s invite Pete and Helen, Gary and Amanda, Roger and Daphne” – where Roger and Daphne are quite the item).

When illustrating the importance of the Oxford comma, I like to use this example:

Or, if mostly naked dead world leaders aren’t your bag, there’s this gaff from Sky News

So, “Who gives a $#%& about an Oxford comma?”

It’s easy to categorise the Oxford comma under “stuff that only writers and nerds care about”, but it’s just become the differentiating factor in a $10 million labour dispute.

In delivering a verdict in favour of a group of Maine dairy drivers, the circuit judge’s opinion says it all:

“For want of a comma, we have this case.”

In this class action lawsuit, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued the company over its failure to grant them overtime pay. According to Maine law, workers are entitled to 1.5 times their normal pay for any hours worked over 40 per week. However, there are exemptions to this rule. Specifically, companies don’t need to pay overtime for the following activities:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;
  2. Meat and fish product; and
  3. Perishable foods

Note the end of the opening line, where there is no comma before the “or.”

Oakhurst Dairy argued its drivers did not qualify for overtime because they engage in distribution, and the spirit of the law intended to list “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two separate exempt activities.

However, the drivers argued the letter of the law said no such thing. Without that telltale Oxford comma, the law could be read to exclude only packing — whether it was packing for shipment or packing for distribution. Distribution by itself, in this case, would not be exempt.

Without that comma, as the judge maintained, this distinction was not clearcut:

Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.

As a result, the court found in favor of the drivers, costing the dairy an estimated $10 million.

Pedants, and dairy workers, rejoice!

As a die hard supporter of the Oxford comma, I was ecstatic with this verdict (and just because the judge and stood up for the workers). Details matter and, finally, my beloved Oxford commas matter too.

I’ve spent a lot of my working life having my Oxfords circled in red pen by proof-readers and editors, now I have 10 million reasons to tell them to back off.

 

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