The Oxford comma: my hero!

Posted by Jane Grossman on April 10, 2017 |

For as long as I can remember, I have touted the need for the Oxford comma when punctuating, despite continued resistance by other reporters and proofreaders. The way I see it, if a restaurant offers on its ice cream menu vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and mint, I want to know, is the last item chocolate with mint or two different flavors (chocolate, mint)? Using the Oxford comma between chocolate and “and” would provide exactly this clarity.

Ice cream flavors, although extremely important in my world, don’t alter legal outcomes, but a recent legal decision showed that the Oxford comma does have the power to change the course of a lawsuit! A Maine court ruling in a case about overtime pay and dairy delivery didn’t come down to trucks, milk, or money. It hinged on one missing comma.

In simple terms, delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy had been tussling with their employers over whether they qualify for overtime, and on March 13, 2017 a US court of appeals determined that because certain clauses of Maine’s overtime laws are grammatically ambiguous, the five drivers won their appeal and were found eligible for overtime. The case now can be heard in a lower court.

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

In essence, all of this could be resolved if there were an Oxford comma clearly separating “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as separate things! According to court documents, the drivers distribute perishable food, but they don’t pack it.

This is the real argument they made. And they actually won!

“Specifically, if that [list of exemptions] 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,” the circuit judge wrote. It did not, and since the judge observed that labor laws, when ambiguous, are designed to benefit the laborers, the case was settled.

Understandably, I also choose to see this (profoundly nerdy) ruling as a victory for anyone who dogmatically defends the serial comma.