Court Ruling Shows How the Oxford Comma is Correct, Useful, and Wonderful
The Oxford comma: an age-old debate for grammar nerds. (Editor’s note: the editorial team at Law Street insists on using the Oxford comma. We know it’s not AP Style. We’re okay with that.) But those of us in favor of the Oxford comma got a little validation this week, in the form of a court ruling in a Maine labor dispute.
In 2014, a company called Oakhurst Dairy was sued by three of its truck drivers. They claim that they were not given sufficient overtime pay. Maine’s rules state that overtime pay doesn’t 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.
Notice that the first sentence doesn’t include an Oxford comma. If it did, the sentence would read “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of” and would clearly designate “packing for shipment” and “distribution” as two different activities. But as it reads, without the Oxford comma, it only designates packing the items for shipping or distribution as an exempt activity, not the actual distribution itself. This matters because the truck drivers were responsible for distribution. According to Nick McCrea, of the Bangor Daily News:
The drivers read the passage to say that people who take part in packing for either shipment or distribution are exempt. Distribution wasn’t its own category as written, and because drivers don’t do any packing for either of those purposes, the law doesn’t apply to them, the drivers argued. Also, if ‘distribution’ was meant to be its own exempt activity, why isn’t it written as a gerund (word ending in ‘-ing’) like all the other activities in the list?
The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit released a 30-page decision about the matter that began with: “For want of a comma, we have this case.” The Circuit court ruled in favor of the drivers, overturning an earlier district court ruling in favor of Oakhurst.
This comma kerfuffle may have just been a matter of time, because the guidelines Maine has for drafting its legislation specifically recommends avoiding the Oxford comma, stating: “don’t use a comma between the penultimate and last item in a series.” But just because Maine doesn’t recommend an Oxford comma, it doesn’t make up for the fact that the law was ambiguous, which was what led the court to rule in the drivers’ favor.
It’s unclear on whether or not Oakhurst plans on pursuing any further appeals. But fellow lovers of the Oxford comma, rejoice–we should feel vindicated, joyful, and content today.