For Want of a Comma, Pay $10 Million and Do Not Pass Go

By Paul Riegler on 19 March 2017
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Observant readers presumably know that Frequent Business Traveler’s style guide calls for the use of the Oxford, or serial, comma. Mere grammatical pedantry, you say? Not so fast.

The success of a class-action lawsuit by truck drivers about overtime pay recently hinged on the use – or lack thereof – of this infamous punctuation mark.

In case you are not familiar with the Oxford comma, here’s a quick review: The Oxford comma is a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three items of more. It brings a certain amount of logic to such lists that would otherwise be lacking and it eliminates ambiguities. To wit, in the sentence “I would like apples, bananas, and blueberries please,” the Oxford comma is the one that appears after “bananas.” So far so good, right?

In the sentence, “I love my grandparents, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” the reader would assume that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are in fact the two grandparents in question. Using the Oxford comma eliminates the ambiguity: “I love my grandparents, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers.”

But back to our lawsuit.

The lack of an Oxford comma in a Maine law could cost a Portland, Maine-based dairy company an estimated $10 million. Three truck drivers sued the dairy over four years of overtime that they contend should have been paid. Maine overtime law carves out come exemptions, saying that 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.

Please direct your attention to the lack of a comma after the word “shipment” for a moment and consider whether the law intends to exempt the distribution of perishable foods. An appeals court ruled on Monday that the absence of the Oxford comma created enough ambiguity to cause the court to rule in favor of the drivers, thereby reversing a lower court decision.

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

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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