Before we begin, here’s a quick grammar lesson. The Oxford comma is the comma that should come towards the end of a list of things. EXAMPLE: Today I ate toast, eggs, and bacon. The comma after “eggs” is the Oxford comma. There is a bit of debate on how important this comma is. Some grammar books say it is unnecessary, and other correct ones say that it is absolutely necessary!
“So what?” you ask. “This doesn’t matter in the real world.”
To which I respond, “Yeah, you’re probably right… except not this time!”
A missing comma in a state law could cost a dairy company millions of dollars. Oakhurst, a Maine-based company, has to follow the state’s laws for overtime pay. The law requires that workers be paid 1.5x their usual salary for every hour they go over a 40 hour work week. However, there are a few exceptions as to what constitutes as work worthy of overtime pay. Three truck drivers, in 2014, sued Oakhurst for four years’ of denied overtime pay. Their reasoning is that, thanks to a missing comma, the state law is too vague to know for sure what work doesn’t qualify for overtime.
The New York Times reports: The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one, but it was anything but for the truck drivers. Note the lack of Oxford comma — also known as the serial comma — in the following state law, which says overtime rules do not apply to:
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.
Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them?
Delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but they don’t pack the boxes themselves. Whether the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence was read.
If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court on Monday sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor. It reversed a lower court decision.
In other words: Oxford comma defenders won this round.
The grammar of the law follows state regulations, which says to not use the Oxford comma. If the truck drivers win the case, however, Oakhurst could be out $10 million dollars. I know ink can be expensive, but man!