The Oxford Comma Impact

commaMany an English teacher (and editor) have pushed the importance of a well-placed comma. But, nothing drives the message home as well as a lawsuit that had a considerable financial impact because a Maine law did not use an Oxford comma. A class-action lawsuit decision about overtime pay hinged on the omission of that little piece of punctuation.

The so-called Oxford comma is the final one in a list before the last item; for example, she ate chicken, salad, and broccoli. Many publications and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook rules they follow do not add that punctuation before the and in a list.

Guardian Liberty Voice used to leave it out, but recently reinstated its use for clarity reasons. To understand, compare these sentences:

  • He visited his favorite politicians, Donald Trump and Paul Ryan.
  • He visited his favorite politicians, Donald Trump, and Paul Ryan.

The first implies that Trump and Ryan are the favorites. The second one implies they are merely two others who were visited.

The Lawsuit

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston handed down a decision on Monday, March 13, that cited the missing punctuation in the Maine law as the basis for a judgment that could cost a dairy company approximately $10 million. The court found in O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy that the statute did not include the comma, so the meaning was ambiguous. As Judge David Barron noted in his opinion, “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

The specific legislation reviewed by the court requires overtime pay, except for those involved in some foodservice activities, including “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution ….” Three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy on behalf of themselves and other workers for over four years’ of overtime pay that they were denied based on the company’s interpretation of the law. The drivers distribute foods, but do not pack them.

The court was asked to decide whether the clause referred to one activity that involves packing or two separate activities—packing and distribution. If distribution is interpreted as a separate activity, the workers would not earn overtime pay. Placing the Oxford comma before the or would have made it clear that distribution was part of the list of exempt activities. There was no comma, per Maine’s legislative drafting instructions.

One other grammar lesson involved in the lawsuit dealt with gerunds (the –ing ending on a word). The litigants also pointed out that the other activities were written with a gerund, but distribution was not. They believed that was further evidence that packing and distribution was one activity, since all the other activities in the list had gerunds.

The local district court had granted a summary judgment to the dairy company after determining that “distribution” is a stand-alone activity and exempt from overtime pay. The First Circuit reversed that, however. The appeals court, citing the uncertainty caused by the grammar, ruled in the drivers’ favor, granting them the overtime pay.

It is not clear if Oakhurst Dairy will try to take the case to a higher court. What is clear is that using or not using the Oxford comma can have a big impact.”

By Dyanne Weiss

NPR: The Oxford Comma: Great For Listing, Pontificating, And Winning Court Cases
ABA Journal: Oxford comma issue benefits drivers in overtime case
Grammerly: What Is the Oxford Comma and Why Do People Care So Much About It?
Boston Globe: Lack of Oxford comma costs Maine company millions in overtime dispute

Art by U.S. Government, additional changes made by Offnfopt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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