Today, let’s look at the important role the tiny comma plays in helping to make the meaning of our words clear. Specifically, we’ll look at the Oxford comma. (Yes, the comma has an actual name, because it was used by staff at Oxford University Press.)

Also known as the the serial comma, you might remember that the mark caused quite a stir in Maine about a lot of overtime pay a while back, so let’s delve right in to it.

The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual — the language guide for writing Maine laws — says “Commas are probably the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language. Use them thoughtfully and sparingly.”

The manual goes on to say, “Although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series. Do not write: Trailers, semi trailers, and pole trailers,” it instructs, but rather “Write: Trailers, semi trailers and pole trailers.”

And therein lies the rub; somebody, it seems, as instructed, used commas a little too sparingly. They left out the Oxford comma.

You may recall that not long ago, Oakhurst Dairy refused to pay its drivers overtime because, the company contended, the law read that overtime rules don’t apply to deliverers of its products. They cited this wording, which exempts from overtime pay those involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: agricultural produce; meats and fish products; and perishable foods.”

The key phrase is “packing for shipment or distribution of.” Oakhurst said that since the drivers were involved in distribution, they were exempt from overtime pay.

However, the judge in the lawsuit filed by the drivers said the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution of” meant both phrases referred to “packing” and, because the drivers deliver the products, but don’t pack them, they weren’t covered by the Maine exemption, and therefore they deserved overtime pay.

In other words, if the sentence had included that Oxford comma and read “packing for shipment, or distribution of,” it might have made it clear enough that employees don’t have to be paid overtime if they either pack the food items or distribute them.

As if the court decision wasn’t enough sting, the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual’s instructions on not using the Oxford comma also get shot down on page 2 of Strunk and White’s little masterpiece “The Elements of Style,” where the gods of punctuation state: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus write: red, white, and blue.” In other words, there should be a comma before “and.”

As everyone learned, a single omitted comma can have big consequences. The court’s ruling resulted in a settlement that awarded $50,000 each to the five drivers who brought the lawsuit, and potentially $5 million to the 127 drivers overall covered by the settlement. That right there is proof that being careful with your commas is just comma sense.


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