Language

Think The Oxford Comma Is Useless? A U.S. Court Didn't.

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There are three types of people in this world: those who don't care about Oxford commas, those who think they're useless and those who will get really mad when they read this sentence. Regardless of which camp you're in, one thing is clear: comma placement can vastly change the meaning of a sentence. When it comes to the law, as one U.S. Circuit judge proved, that's really important.

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Serial, Oxford, And A Third Thing

A quick refresher, for those who aren't grammar nerds: the Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is the comma that's placed in a list between the last and second-to-last item. The comma is controversial. On one hand, someone could argue that the "and" between the last and second-to-last item is enough to separate the two without a surplus grammatical mark. Indeed, many style guides advise against using it, including the Associated Press Stylebook (the Chicago Manual of Style and, predictably, the University of Oxford Styleguide still recommend it).

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On the other hand, it definitely lends a sentence clarity. Just consider the famous caption about Merle Haggard from an old newspaper clipping: "The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall." Now there's a place an Oxford comma would have definitely come in handy.

The Case At Hand

In March 2017, a group of dairy drivers in Maine appealed a lawsuit they brought against their company, arguing that they deserved overtime pay for completing certain tasks. The company, you might expect, argued that they didn't. Here's how the relevant law reads:

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.

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Can you spot the problem? It's unclear whether "packing for shipment" and "distribution" are two tasks or "packing for shipment and distribution" is a single task that doesn't qualify for overtime pay. The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the drivers' favor. As Judge David Barron wrote in the court's decision, "...there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption's list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not." He continues, pointing out that although the previous court had decided that "distribution" was unambiguously meant as its own task, "under Maine law, ambiguities in the state's wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose [...]". No Oxford comma, no clarity. We find in favor of unambiguous grammar.

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