Oxford comma completely changes outcome of court case

One of the most contentious grammatical rules of the English language has finally made a huge difference in the everyday lives of workers.

People have long debated whether the Oxford comma is important or not -- and some people get heated about it. It's easy to consider the debate silly, but it seriously affected the lives of a group of dairy drivers in Maine.

The laborers argued that they deserved overtime pay for certain tasks they had completed. The company disagreed.

An appeals court sided with the drivers, who said the guidelines themselves were too ambiguous because of a lack of an Oxford comma.

Here's the law that came under fire:

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.

Representation for the drivers argued that it was not clear if packing for shipment is its own activity, or if it applies to the rest of the clause -- the distribution of agricultural produce, etc.

If there were an Oxford comma separating "packing for shipment" and "distribution," it would be more clear. Court documents say that the drivers distribute perishable food, but they do not pack it.

They won the case.

"Specifically, if that [list of exemptions] used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform," the circuit judge wrote.

The judge observed that when labor laws are ambiguous, they are designed to benefit the laborers.

"For want of a comma, we have this case," the judge wrote.

For what it's worth, there are state guidelines in place on how Maine lawmakers can draw up their documents -- and they don't include Oxford commas. However, there is guidance on how to avoid unclear language that could have helped avoid this entire situation.


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