How the law’s lack of an Oxford comma just helped some workers get overtime pay.
I’m a big advocate of the Oxford comma. Which, if you’re not familiar, is the use of a comma before the final article in a list. For example, “I’d like to thank my best friends, Oprah, and Jesus” as opposed to “I’d like to thank my best friends, Oprah and Jesus.” I’d be afraid this sentiment would seem unpatriotic, but I’m pretty sure the people who would castigate me for being anti-patriotic aren’t all that concerned with the minutiae of international punctuation variance.
I used the example above because it’s a clear case where the Oxford comma clears up ambiguity. But our version of English doesn’t use that comma.
The Oxford comma is in the news — not the main news, which is more focused on week 10 of The Adventures of Lunatic & Friends, but in the next level down — because it just came up in a court decision.
Five milk delivery drivers in Maine recently sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for overtime pay. (They said they were owed it, the company said they weren’t, obviously. It would be weird if they sued because they got too much overtime pay and the company was demanding that they take it.)
Here was the sentence in Maine’s state law that was at issue. The following jobs are NOT eligible for overtime pay:
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 drivers’ argument hinged on “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The law was intended to separate those two activities — “packing for shipment” and “distribution.” But because there was no Oxford comma separating them, the entire thing read as “packing for shipment or distribution.” In other words, instead of talking about the act of distributing — which the drivers do — the sentence seemed to tie distribution onto the packing process. And since these guys are delivery drivers, not people who pack for shipment or distribution, they believed they were due overtime.
And because, apparently, they’re not just milk delivery drivers but also real punctuation nerds, they also noted that every item in the list except “distribution” was in gerund form, ending with “-ing,” which further suggested that it was not its own activity but a component of packing.
A lower court ruled in favor of the dairy. But earlier this week, a U.S. appeals court sided with the drivers. The judge cited the ambiguity of the sentence, because of the missing comma, in his ruling. The case will now be heard again in a lower court.
These workers helped illustrate why the Oxford comma is valuable AND won. These grammar snob milkmen are alright in my book. I guess I’m ok with one of them secretly being my child’s father.