The Oxford comma is in the news again – this time with a ten million dollar price tag attached. A case recently made its way through the American courts in which truck drivers were challenging a law passed by the state of Maine that had been used to deny them overtime pay.
And it all hinged on a missing comma.
For decades, grammarians and linguists, have fought over the importance of the “Oxford comma” in the English language. The best way to explain this punctuation issue is to give an example. Compare the following sentences:
The purse was large enough to carry her books, shoes and umbrella.
The purse was large enough to carry her books, shoes, and umbrella.
Traditional grammarians have argued that sentence A is correct. In a list of three or more items, if the last item follows “and” or “or,” then the comma should be omitted. Those who support the Oxford comma argue for version B. They say that it doesn’t matter that “and” is used to separate “shoes” and “umbrella.” The additional – so-called “Oxford” – comma is useful for making the meaning clear.
To support their argument they cite lists of compound items like the following:
For dinner you can choose between macaroni and cheese, fish and chips and beans and rice.
For dinner you can choose between macaroni and cheese, fish and chips, and beans and rice.
Certainly the use of the Oxford comma in B makes the meaning much clearer than in A.
And now to our case of the protesting truck drivers. Their argument rested on a law that specifically excludes overtime rules being applied to:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish products; and
Under this law, they’ve been denied overtime pay. But, said the drivers, they don’t pack the products. They just distribute them. And because there is no comma after the word “shipment,” then, they argued, the law exempts only the “packing for shipment or distribution” of these goods, not the two separate activities of packing and distributing.
As the lawyer for the truck drivers admitted, an Oxford comma “would have sunk” their case.
Want to know what the verdict was?!
The Drivers Won!
The appeals court decided that the absence of a comma caused enough uncertainty to rule in the drivers’ favour. However, with ten million dollars in overtime pay at stake, this case is sure to reach even higher courts. Stay tuned for the next round!
Useful samples and examples: