March 21, 2017

Eats, shoots, and lawsuits: the indefatigable value of the Oxford comma


We all know that the Oxford comma (sometimes referred to as the serial comma) is preferred by everyone with a brain (citation TK); there are countless examples all over the internet explaining that the Oxford comma provides clarity, and there are many, many more examples all over the internet showing how the lack of an Oxford comma can completely alter the meaning of a sentence (primarily because these examples are So. Damn. Hilarious).

But if you need another reason to embrace the Oxford comma, try this on for size: it can save you from a $10 million lawsuit.

Poor Oakhurst Dairy of Portland, Maine. In 2014, three of the company’s truck drivers filed a class-action lawsuit against it, asserting that they had not received overtime pay to which they were entitled. Last Monday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a twenty-nine-page opinion, written by Judge David Jeremiah Barron, in favor of the truck drivers, reversing the trial court’s initial decision in favor of the dairy. “For want of a comma, we have this case,” reads the opening sentence of the decision, which is, bar none, the nerdiest such occurrence in the history of everything.

What, exactly, is this pesky grammar mistake? It’s such a pompous technicality that even I, who have unabashedly partaken of numerous heated arguments regarding en-dashes, can barely defend it. The language at issue occurs in a section of the law detailing which functions 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.

If you read that excerpt and said, “But wait! Shouldn’t there be a comma after ‘shipment’?” then congrats! You are a pedant. If you’re scratching your head, wondering where the issue resides, then congrats! You’re a dairy farmer. Because, as the lawsuit alleged, it is unclear whether the language intended to exempt both the “act of packing for shipment” and the “act of distribution,” or only the unitary “act of packing for shipment or distribution.”

And with that barely egregious grammar, millions of dollars of overtime pay were claimed. For while truck drivers distribute perishable foods, they don’t pack the boxes. Thus, whether or not the truckers were subject to a law denying them literally thousands of dollars a year hinged upon how the sentence was read.

While the written law did comply with the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual (which specifically instructs against the Oxford comma), the appeals court ruled that the language provided enough ambiguity to find in favor of the drivers. As the judge observed, when labor laws are unclear, they should be interpreted to benefit the laborers. And so the ruling of the lower court was overturned.

Adding a touch of irony to this already ridiculous imbroglio is the fact that few of the news outlets reporting on the case employ the Oxford comma. The vast majority follow AP Style, which does not adhere to the serial comma rule. Thus we have a cornucopia of esteemed print publications explaining the benefits of a writing style they do not follow. Book publishers—who generally use Chicago Style—are giggling everywhere. Finally, people believe us when we say that grammar is important! Finally, people understand that punctuation matters! Hopefully, this time, the world will listen. We simply can’t afford another long, violent, and unnecessary style-based gang war.



Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.