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The following recent news item hits to the heart of GrammarBook.com’s mission
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."
Lack of Comma Costs Company Millions in Dispute
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
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
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
“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
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
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