Case of the missing comma nets drivers $10 million

Time to admit to the world that I’m a fan of the serial (a.k.a. “Oxford” or “Harvard”) comma.

In my opinion, it makes any series of parallel words or phrases joined by “and” easier to understand and far less confusing. But not everyone is as liberal as I am about using commas — serial or not. And sometimes that can affect the readability of a piece.

For example, there truly is a difference between how you read this classic example of three mis-matched guests at a party (with the Harvard comma after JFK)…

— We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

… and how you read about the party’s two racy entertainers (minus the second comma).

— We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

Another example from the Grammar Diva of a book dedication that’s less confusing with the addition of a single comma:

— I would like to thank my parents, Steve Martin and Jimmy Fallon. (Decidedly an odd couple!)

vs.

I would like to thank my parents, Steve Martin, and Jimmy Fallon. 

Not having the extra comma typically means re-reading the sentence to get its true meaning. A minor annoyance, to be sure, but not much more.

“That comma would have sunk our ship”

For a company in Maine recently, the lack of a serial comma had more extreme consequences. It created an opportunity for the firm’s truck drivers to extract a $10 million settlement from company management.

Here’s how the grammarians at bigwords101.com described the Oakhurst case: 

A Maine company was faced with a class-action lawsuit requesting overtime pay for their truck drivers due to the interpretation of a written law. The drivers distribute perishable food items. Here is the sentence in question — indicating the activities to which overtime pay does NOT apply: 

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.

The only thing the drivers do as part of their regular job is distribute.  If the comma separated that activity, the law would read, “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution…” Aha! With the serial Harvard comma, distribution is a separate thing, and there is no overtime.

But when we leave the comma out (as it is in the official written law), the last item in the series can be read as “packing for shipment or distribution.” Clarified, this item would combine packing for shipment and packing for distribution as two separate packing activities. There is no overtime for packing, but they don’t pack; they distribute. So all is good and they receive overtime.

The final outcome of the case: The appeals court ruled that the missing comma raised enough uncertainty to take the side of the drivers. According to bigwords101.com:

That simple little Oxford comma would have made distribution a separate item in the series and disqualified the drivers from getting paid overtime for distribution, which is their job.

Or as one of the lawyers who represented the drivers so aptly put it: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”

So the serial/Oxford/Harvard comma finally had its day in court — and was recognized for its power to confuse (by its absence) or clarify (though its use). Not bad for a tiny punctuation mark!

Leave a Reply