Seventy-five milk-truck drivers from Maine, USA are potentially getting $10 million from a class action case against Oakhurst Dairy because of a missing serial comma in their contracts. Omitting a comma before the final conjunction in a list or series is neither a serious nor expensive offense. But in a legal document, paying attention to the minutest details like the Oxford comma could save you millions of dollars.
Judge David J Barron reviewed this ambiguous sentence, which defined the exemptions in overtime pay based on the state of Maine’s law:
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 good.
The dairy drivers argued that they didn’t pack “perishable goods” (e.g. milk) so they were entitled to overtime fees. The Portland-based company insisted that the drivers “distribute perishable goods” so they were exempt from overtime compensation. But the missing serial comma before the final conjunction “or” (after the word ‘shipment’) persuaded the judge to favor the drivers.
Generally speaking, a comma is not used before conjunctions such as ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list. For example, “She eats broccoli, asparagus and green peas.”
Online publishers and news sites do not use the Oxford comma. The New York Times, AP Stylebook and The Times Style Manual also do not recommend the use of a serial comma. Omitting this punctuation mark saves space and most of the time, leaving out a comma does not affect the meaning of a sentence.
But Dr. Roslyn Petelin, a writing professor from the University of Queensland, has a different opinion. She favors using a serial comma to aid clarity or avoid ambiguity. She stressed the need to teach the Oxford comma in Australian schools in her article for The Conversation.
So what’s the moral of this story?
In legal documents and perhaps in all pieces of writing where million-dollar lawsuits hinge on the smallest detail like punctuation use, it pays to obsess over a comma.
Have a grammar nerd for a friend? Be sure to tell them about this story.