Grammar Nerd’s Paradise: The Case of the $13 Million Dollar Comma

For years, grammar nerds like me have enjoyed an extended tussle over the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma).  Last month, the omission of the Oxford comma earned Maine milk-truck drivers $13 million dollars.

First, A Lesson
The Oxford comma refers to the final comma in a list. Here’s an example: I bought beans, carrots, watermelon, and chips. Because we already have the conjunction “and” between watermelon and chips, some writers would omit the final comma (particularly in newspapers, where space is at a premium).

A Wrinkle
Here’s where it gets confusing. What if your sentence reads like this? I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Theresa and God. How many people are you thanking? Four or two? Has Mother Theresa a daughter we didn’t know about? That’s why we need the Oxford comma.

The Case
Here’s what happened to the Maine truck drivers, who were seeking overtime for distributing milk.  The relevant Maine statute carved out an overtime exception like this:

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

The drivers are distributers. Are they a part of this exemption? Without the comma separating “packing for shipment” and “distribution of,” the court ruled that distribution alone was not a part of the overtime exception, and therefore, Oakhurst Dairy owed its drivers $13 million dollars of overtime.

And that’s how this obscure little comma got its fifteen minutes of fame.

For what it’s worth, I’m an proponent of the Oxford comma, and I bet more than a few Maine truck drivers are too.

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