The comma that paid workers $10 million

In a world of texting, email and casual sign-offs, good language still counts. Observe this high-stakes grammar lesson: A U.S. appellate court decision between a Maine dairy company and its delivery drivers came down to a punctuation mark.  One missing Oxford comma in Maine’s state law could cost Oakhurst Dairy about $10 million in overtime pay.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Oxford or serial comma is one of the most controversial punctuation marks among language lovers. It’s the last comma in a series, but some people think it shouldn’t exist. As language blog Grammarly notes, it’s the difference between, “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty,” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” Those two sentences mean very different things.

In 2014, three truck drivers filed a class-action lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy for missing overtime pay. In its decision on March 13, the court reversed a lower court decision and sided with the truck drivers, arguing that Maine’s overtime rules were written too ambiguously. Maine’s state law says that overtime does not apply in the following situations:

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.

Grammar wars

The entire case hinged on the missing Oxford comma in the law between “for shipping” and “distribution.”  The Associated Press, which is widely used in many newsrooms, argues against using the Oxford comma in its guidelines.

Proponents say it adds clarity. Between saying “my friend, a clown and a congresswoman,” or “my friend, a clown, and a congresswoman,” some, like these drivers, would say that the former situation means that my friend is a congresswoman.

Without an Oxford comma, the drivers contended that “packing for shipment of distribution of” was defining the single activity of packing—ergo, not them. Delivery drivers distributed food but they didn’t pack them. They argued that they were exempt from the overtime exemption.

Oakhurst Dairy argued that distribution was written to be a separate activity, so it did include the scope of the drivers’ work.

Maine’s own legal style guide says not to use Oxford commas. But these guidelines also emphasized clarity above all: commas “are the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language.” The style guide says commas should be used thoughtfully and sparingly.

In the end, the judges sided with clarity and agreed that there was enough ambiguity in the drivers’ favor. The Oxford comma, we can now safely say, has been vindicated.