A Missing Oxford Comma Just Changed the Course of a Court Case

Call it pedantic, but comma wars are a thing

(Grammatical) order in the court! DNY59/iStock

Is a serial comma a critical tool for clear communication or unnecessary waste of space? Admit it: If you’re reading this, you probably have a strong opinion one way or the other. It turns out a United States Court of Appeals has opinions about Oxford commas, too. As Thu-Huong Ha reports for Quartz, a recent ruling handed down a victory for commas in court.

The trouble began when a group of dairy truck drivers sued their employer, Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy, for over $10 million in unpaid overtime. Their claim relied on a Maine law that exempts certain jobs from overtime pay.

That’s where the comma came in: Maine’s overtime statutes state that people involved in 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.

are exempt from overtime pay. The dairy argued that “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were two different jobs and that thus, overtime was inappropriate. But the drivers argued that “packing for shipment or distribution” is what was intended by the law—and that since they only deliver goods instead of packing them, they were owed money.

The case went all the way to an appeals court, which kicked the case back to the lower court due to the ambiguity introduced by the lack of a serial, or Oxford, comma. “For want of a comma, we have this case,” wrote Judge David J. Barron.

Despite the fact that Maine’s own legislative style guide discourages use of the serial comma, writes Ha, “the appeals court argues—and the style guide shows—[that] clarity is of the utmost importance when a list is ambiguous.” That’s the case with journalistic style guides for organizations like the AP and New York Times, too. They usually eschew the Oxford comma as part of a time-honored space-saving journalistic convention strategy—except where it prevents misreading.

The comma drama has raised eyebrows—and not just in Maine. New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry called it “the nerdiest dispute ever,” while CNN’s AJ Willingham dubbed it “supremely persnickety.” So what now? As Nick McCrea writes for the Bangor Daily News, “In effect, a federal court ruling was overturned because of a poorly written sentence and a missing comma.” The case is likely to return to court before being resolved, says McCrea—but for die-hard proponents of the Oxford comma or the lack thereof, it’s unlikely the standoff will ever end.

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