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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Into the Fire: The Afterlife of School Papers

At the end of each academic year, I find myself asking the same question: what to do with everything I’ve written this semester?  

An essay might take as much time and effort as an art project, but at least an art project leaves you with something tangible; you can put it on a shelf and gawk at the terrible craftsmanship for as many years as you like. (Shout-out to my mom, whose paternal obligations have kept her surrounded by my terrible pottery for over twenty years.)  But what about our essays? You can’t display those without looking arrogant or like a lunatic. So, what’s the point of keeping them around? 

It’s a complicated question, and one I’ve answered differently as I’ve matured.  

In high school, my friends and I ritually burned our academic papers in a cooler we dug out of the dumpster, a performance we repeated every year to mark the end of school and the start of summer. Perhaps motivated by a complete misunderstanding of Fahrenheit 451, a book we all slogged through and wrote about our freshman year, we found catharsis in watching a year’s worth of our work burn away.  

I’m a bit different now. I collect all my papers and the articles that informed them in binders, which I then place in a Rubbermaid bin in my closet. If I run out of binders, I go through and three-hole-punch everything before tying it all together with looped yarn. Beyond that, I have copies and back-up copies stored on flash drives, the electronic equivalent of a closeted Rubbermaid bin. Now, I literally carry around every essay I’ve written as a graduate student in a flash drive that hangs off my keyring. 

Something has definitely changed since high school. 

Technology has made things easier to store and have fewer friends who are prepared to spark butane at a moment’s noticeBut I think the real reason for this change is that I find value in what I write, in fact, I am actually proud of some of the stuff I've produced.  

I’m now almost at the end of my graduate career and will again be questioning the purpose of lugging around all my old papers. I don’t know what I will do with them yet, but I do remember feeling a tinge of regret during the last paper burning in high school. 

By then, news of our ceremonial burning had spread, increasing the size of our group from three people to ten. It could have been the increased amount of paper fuel or an excessive amount of lighter fluid, but when we lit the stack on fire that final time the cooler caught fire as well. We had to chuck the whole thing into a retention pond to keep the fire from spreading. Afterwards, when we were pulling what we could out of the water, I discovered a page from a paper that I had actually been proud of. The rest of the paper had probably burned away or soaked through to the point of dissolving, but for a moment I wanted it all back. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Article Usage, Pt. II: "Oh, *the* places you'll go!"

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about basic article usage in the English language.

In this week’s post, the focus is on the.

We already know that the is a definite pronoun.

But what we haven’t learned is when the is necessary. The following examples clarify when to include the.

Geographical Use

There are specific rules about when the is used to modify a geographical place. Do not use the with:

Names of most countries and territories: France, Germany, Bangladesh

Do use the with: the United States, the Netherlands, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United Kingdom

Names of cities, towns, or states: Champaign, Charleston, Illinois

Names of streets: Lincoln Avenue, University Boulevard, Main Street

Names of lakes or bays: Lake Charleston, Green Bay

Do use the with grouped lakes: the Great Lakes

Names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji

Do use the with mountain ranges: the Appalachian Mountains or the Andes

Names of continents: Asia, Europe, Africa

Names of islands: Maui, Key West

Do use the with island chains: the Bahamas

There are also a few geographical places where the is definitely needed. These include:

Names of rivers, oceans, and seas: the Dead Sea, the Pacific Ocean

Points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole

Geographical areas: the Middle East, the West

Deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Amazon Rainforest, the Gulf of Mexico, the Iberian Peninsula

Article Omission

Some nouns don’t need any article at all. These include:

Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, German

Exceptions include referencing the population of the nation: the Russians, the Italians

Names of sports: basketball, baseball, volleyball

Names of academic subjects: history, biology, composition, business management

As always, if you have a question about article usage, feel free to call or visit the Writing Center.