John Smith drove his truck home to see his wife, a doctor and his best friend.
John Smith drove his truck home to see his wife, a doctor, and his best friend.
Do these two sentences mean the same thing to you? It’s a classic example for those supporting the Oxford comma, which is the optional (depending on who you ask) comma before the word “and” at the end of a list, as defined by the Oxford dictionary.
Supporters claim it is needed for clarification. Those against the Oxford comma claim it’s unnecessary, and context usually clears up any possible confusion. Let’s not make a federal case of it.
In May 2014, delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy in Maine filed a class action lawsuit claiming they were not paid overtime. Classic driver wage suit.
Oakhurst Dairy won the lawsuit, but plaintiffs filed an appeal. On March 13, Judge David J. Barron started his 29-page opinion with this:
For want of a comma, we have this case. It arises from a dispute between a Maine dairy company and its delivery drivers, and it concerns the scope of an exemption from Maine’s overtime law. 26 M.R.S.A. § 664(3). Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.
Essentially, the district ruled that drivers fell within the state’s exemptions for overtime. Judge Barron disagreed, citing the lack of a comma that made the law ambiguous and ruled in favor of the drivers.
So what is the exact language of Maine’s overtime exemption law? Exemption F is what is being questioned and it reads:
F. 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.
Do you see the ambiguity? Judge Barron noted that “… packing for shipment or distribution of …” From his opinion:
The delivery drivers contend that, in combination, these words refer to the single activity of “packing,” whether the “packing” is for “shipment” or for “distribution.” The drivers further contend that, although they do handle perishable foods, they do not engage in “packing” them. As a result, the drivers argue that, as employees who fall outside Exemption F, the Maine overtime law protects them.
Oakhurst Dairy claims the exemption refers to two different activities: “packing for shipment” and “distribution.” However, without the Oxford comma, the judge ruled it could read as one packing activity.
A federal court made a decision based on its interpretation of grammar rules, and the most controversial grammatical debate was front and center. Oxford comma supporters now have a federal law case to cite.
You won the battle, Oxford comma sympathizers, but the war wages on.
I disagree with this decision and ask for Oakhurst Dairy to bring this to the Supreme Court of the United States. If the meaning and intent are clear, an Oxford comma is unnecessary, pointless and dumb.
Tyson Fisher, staff writer and research associate, joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson received his journalism degree from the University of Missouri – Kansas City.