Comma Sense Isn’t Always Common Sense
Native Americans had no place in their language for the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. They called the Portland, Maine peninsula Machigonne, or Great Neck. Situated on the Great Neck is the Oakhurst Dairy, a place that should have had a place for the Oxford comma when they relied upon the Maine legislative rule for whether employees should or should not receive overtime. Now, by not clarifying the State law, the company may very well owe $10 million dollars in overtime to five truckers who took them to court. The truckers’ attorney read the Maine statute and noticed the missing Oxford comma, which cites that the following activities are not subject to overtime protection:
“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.”
After the “or,” there should have been a comma to avoid the ambiguity: “packing for shipment or distribution” makes an employee exempt from overtime regulations? Or is that “packing for shipment” and “distribution” makes them exempt? The answer matters, and in the muddle, Oakhurst Dairy lost to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on March 13, 2017, which ruled that the truckers are involved in distributing, but they are not involved in packing the perishable food. So they may be entitled to overtime. Oops.
If one doubts the power of New Hart’s Rules over the tepid AP Stylebook, let this put the case to rest. Inconsistent use of the serial comma can cost you, big time and overtime. While many embrace dropping the Oxford comma, except in the case of clarifying complexities, it doesn’t make the best sense to guess, willy-nilly, given the nature of ambiguity. Common sense should dictate the firm and consistent reliance on the comma sense of New Hart’s Rules. It is, indeed, writer’s choice: but choosing between the illustrious Oxford University standards or the AP Stylebook championed by newspapers, (some of which are used to line birdcages rather than for reading), the choice should be easy. No need to stick your Machigonne out: the Oxford comma clearly rules!
The ruling sends the case to trial at the lower court. For Oakhurst Dairy, they might, in the end, be crying over more than spilled milk.