“For want of a comma, we have this case.”
In a landmark case in Maine, USA, a group of delivery drivers have won a labour dispute against Oakhurst Dairy because of the absence of a comma in the company’s rules on overtime.
But before you understand the case itself – it’s important to know why the Oxford comma is such an important part of English. Especially if you’re not a grammar nerd of epic proportions. The Oxford comma is usually used before the words “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things.
A Grammarly article has the perfect example to understand how the Oxford comma changes the meaning of sentences. Here’s one which sounds very similar, but mean completely different things.
1) Without the Oxford comma: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty”
– The meaning of the sentence above is that you love your parents, who in this case are are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. In simpler terms – you love Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty – because they’re your parents.
2) With the Oxford comma: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty”
– The meaning of the sentence above is that you love your parents and you also love Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. All three subjects are separate. In simpler terms, you love you mother, father, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.
Obviously, you could completely avoid all this confusion by writing: “I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.”
Here are more examples of how ridiculous the meaning of sentences gets without the Oxford comma:
Back to the case then.
The Oakhurst Dairy, in their rules for which duties are eligible for overtime, stated the following:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Now look at that first line carefully. The Oakhurst Dairy forgot to add an Oxford comma before the word “or”.
A Guardian article explains how the drivers found this out. This was their argument:
“The drivers argued, due to a lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution”, the law refers to the single activity of “packing”, not to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. As the drivers distribute – but do not pack – the goods, this would make them eligible for overtime pay.”
A district judge had earlier ruled in favour of the dairy, but First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Barron ruled in favour of the drivers.
“We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption,” he said.
So it’s settled then. Avoid the Oxford comma at your own peril.