I Freaking Love Grammar (in law)

The absence of an “Oxford comma” also known as a “serial comma” in a law made the difference for drivers in a labor dispute for overtime pay.  Yes, a comma!  The Oxford comma is a comma between the second to last and the last item in a list in a sentence.  Here is an example: “I invited the team players, Alex, and Brian.”  In that sentence, the invitees include the team players, plus Alex and Brian.  In contrast, if you were to write the sentence without the last comma, like “I invited the team players, Alex and Brian” then it can be assumed that Alex and Brian are the team players. That is the difference in interpretation a simple comma can make.

In the labor case, the workers were not supposed to get overtime pay for certain tasks.  The list of the tasks excluded the Oxford comma as follows:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…”

Without the Oxford comma between “packing for shipment” and “or”, it can be assumed that the task of “packing” is connected to shipment and distribution.  Accordingly, distribution as an independent task was found not to be included in the list of excluded tasks for overtime.  And there went the case.

What can we learn from this case?  Simple.  Hire a lawyer who pays attention to details and you will not get unpleasant surprises based on a missing “comma.”

© 2017 Marina Manoukian

Reference http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/15/health/oxford-comma-maine-court-case-trnd/index.html