A Few Words About That Ten-Million-Dollar Serial Comma

How important is the Oxford comma? Lawyers for the defense conceded that the statement was ambiguous (the State of ME specifically instructs drafters of legal statutes not to use the serial comma) but argued that it had "a latent clarity".

The Oxford comma is used before the words "and" or "or" in a list of three or more things.

Oakhurst Dairy claims the exemption refers to two different activities: "packing for shipment" and "distribution".

Delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy won their suit against the Portland milk and cream company, after a US court of appeals found that the wording of Maine's overtime rules were written ambiguously. Oakhurst argued that Maine's legislation style guide nixes Oxford commas, and that "distribution" was meant to be separate, but the drivers pointed out all other separate items on the list were gerunds ending in "ing", so "distribution" didn't fit the pattern, Quartz notes.

The drivers lost an earlier ruling in the case because a lower court said the law was unambigious in its intention that the law applied to both packers and distributors.

The lawsuit was brought against Oakhurst Dairy in 2014 by the truck drivers it employed.

Maine's "wage and hour law" states that employees who work more than 40 hours must receive overtime, 1.5 times the regularly hourly rate for each additional hour worked. Not being exempt from the regulations would require the dairy to pay them for past extra time spent on the job, which would be pretty great for them, if not Oakhurst. The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that in some cases, it is essential. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption's list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not. "That comma would have sunk our ship", said lawyer David G. Webbert who represented the drivers.

Another case of Oxford comma's is the a book dedication referenced in Teresa Nielsen Hayden's book - Making Book that read: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God".

Now, as adherents of the great and bad AP Stylebook - which also eschews the Oxford comma - we must admit the moral of this story flies in the face of everything (or one thing) NPR's own sentences stand for.

  • Larry Hoffman