Oxford Comma Makes the News: Lawsuit Hinges on Comma Usage (Or Lack Thereof)

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“For want of a comma, we have this case.” That was the first line of Circuit Judge David J. Barron’s opinion on a case hinging upon the use – or lack thereof – of a comma.

That’s right: The Oxford comma is at the center of a $10 million overtime lawsuit in Maine. More specifically, the class action case, O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, involves a class of truck drivers who argue that because of how a state statute is written, they are not among a group of workers exempt from overtime wages.

The statute lacks an Oxford comma when listing workers who do not get overtime, leading to the confusion and subsequent lawsuit. For those who don’t know, the Oxford comma (sometimes called the serial comma) is the comma after the second to last item in a list of three or more items. It goes before the “and” or “or” that precedes the final item in the list.

For example: I bought milk, bananas, and bread. The comma after “bananas” is the Oxford comma.

Here’s how Maine Revised Statutes §664(3) lists workers not entitled to overtime:

The overtime provision of this section does not apply to:

F. The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  • Agricultural produce;
  • Meat and fish products; and
  • Perishable foods.

The truck drivers are honing in on this part of the sentence: packing for shipment or distribution. Notice there is no Oxford comma. The drivers argue that this phrase refers to workers who pack and ready the goods listed so they can be shipped and distributed; not workers involved in the actual distribution of these goods. If the law intended to include drivers involved in distribution, it would have included a comma after “shipment” the drivers argue.

So, the question is: Does the law say workers involved in distribution of these goods are exempt from overtime? Or is it only referring to workers who pack the goods for shipment and distribution?

Maine Legislative “Style Guide” Could Offer a Clue

The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual tells legislators to avoid using the Oxford comma when writing laws. It reads, “Although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate [second to last] and the last item of a series.”

But it instructs legislators to be careful in the event an item is modified. It gives this example:

“Trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers of 3,000 pounds gross weight or less are exempt from the licensing provisions.”

Is this 3,000-pound limit referring to pole trailers only, or does it also include trailers and semitrailers? It’s ambiguous. The manual recommends two changes depending on the law’s intention, neither of which include the Oxford comma:

Does not apply to trailers and pole trailers: Pole trailers of 3,000 pounds gross weight or less, trailers and semitrailers are exempt from the licensing provisions.

Applies to all three: If a trailer, semitrailer or pole trailer has a gross weight of 3,000 pounds or less, it is not required to be licensed.

So, while the manual says not to use the Oxford comma, it does instruct lawmakers to be mindful of modifiers to avoid ambiguity and confusion. Did the wording and comma use of the passage in question warrant rewording to prevent ambiguity?

What is the status of this Oxford comma-based overtime lawsuit?

An Appeals Court agreed with the drivers – the lack of an Oxford comma adds ambiguity to the passage, so it is not clear if the drivers are exempt from overtime pay. The Appeals Court therefore ruled that the District Court erred in ruling against the drivers and sent the case back for further review.

Should I use an Oxford comma?

There’s no rule saying you must use an Oxford comma, and no rule saying you should not use it. Some style guides like AP style rule against the Oxford comma, while others like Chicago style rule in favor of it.

But make no mistake: The Oxford comma is one of the hottest debates in grammar. (I know what you’re thinking: Nerds!) Weird Al Yankovic even sang about the Oxford comma in his 2014 single “Word Crimes.”

The We Do Web Content team has even written about this infamous comma and the debate surrounding it in our Copy Corner entry on the Oxford comma and in our grammar controversies recap.

Here’s the gist of the debate: The pro-Oxford comma contingent says it avoids ambiguity. The anti-Oxford comma contingent says it’s unnecessary and may even add ambiguity. To clarify, here’s a synopsis of our examples in the Copy Corner blog on Oxford commas:

  • With Oxford comma: My biggest influences are my parents, God, and Mother Teresa.
  • Without Oxford comma: My biggest influences are my parents, God and Mother Teresa.

In the first example, it’s clear there have been three major influences on the writer’s life: her parents, God, and Mother Teresa. In the second example, it appears the writer is claiming her parents are God and Mother Teresa.

Here’s another example:

  • With Oxford comma: My biggest influences are my mother, Mother Teresa, and God.
  • Without Oxford comma: My biggest influences are my mother, Mother Teresa and God.

The first example suggests the writer is claiming that her mother is Mother Teresa.

Perhaps it is best to simply say that, like all punctuation, we should use the Oxford comma if it adds clarity to our writing. And if in sticking to a particular style your sentence would be made ambiguous by your comma use, consider rewording the sentence (see the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual examples above) or break the list into a bullet list.

Where do you stand on the Oxford comma?

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