Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Ten Million-Dollar Comma

What if I told you this information could save you a million dollars?

A lawsuit hinging on the use of a single punctuation mark—the so-called “Oxford comma”—might cost Oakhurst Dairy, a company out of Portland, Maine, over 10 million dollars.

The lawsuit started in 2014 when a group of truck drivers sued the dairy for four years of overtime pay. Maine laws states that workers must be paid 1.5 times their regular wage for each overtime hour worked, and the truck drivers claimed they were not. A few weeks ago, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit handed down a 29-page decision.

The lawsuit centers on an ambiguity in Oakhurst Dairy’s employee contract. The truck drivers claimed that a missing Oxford comma distorted the meaning of the clause, resulting in an unfair handling of their overtime.

According to Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), the Oxford comma is simply the last comma that separates three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

For example, suppose you are writing a letter to a friend about what you enjoying doing in your free time. You write, "I enjoy cooking, my family and my dog." 

Do you see the problem? By not using the Oxford comma, the sentence reads that you like to cook your family and your dog. Rather than worry your friend that they might be next, an Oxford comma eliminates all that confusion (and a rather awkward conversation).

Ex: I enjoy cooking, my family, and my dog.

In the case of Oakhurst Dairy, the piece of company contract that is in question describes those activities that are exempt from the overtime rule:

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.

If you look closely at the last phrase, “packing for shipment or distribution” is not separated with an Oxford comma.

The employees heading the lawsuit claim that without the Oxford comma, “packing” modifies both shipment and distribution. As it reads now, the last phrase indicates that shipping and packing for distribution are exempt.

The truck drivers just deliver the food. They don’t pack any of the boxes.

Despite the mix-up, Maine law states that, although ambiguous, Oakhurst Dairy had followed the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which instructs lawmakers to ditch the Oxford comma.

David Webbert, the lawyer who has been working on the case, sides with those who defend the Oxford comma. The appeals court also defended the comma, stating that its absence created enough confusion to question the contract’s true meaning. Webbert did not take a personal position on the case, but he did offer an invaluable piece of advice: “In this situation, [the missing comma] did create an ambiguity, which means you either have to add a comma or rewrite the sentence.”

Lesson learned? We hope so. If you’ve got a sentence with three or more words or phrases and you’re wondering whether or not an Oxford comma might be necessary, just go for it. That extra keystroke might save you 10 million dollars.

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