Dan Smith
The $10 million comma

(This isn't an easy question even for native speakers. That's why it landed in court. In fact the probable reason it made news is because it concerns a punctuation style question that native speakers argue about).

A Maine state law says that certain kinds of workers need to be paid what's informally called "time and a half for overtime;" that is, if an employer requires them to work more than forty hours in a week, they have to pay 1.5 times the hourly rate for the extra hours. However, the laws says that this does not apply to

"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 in question sued for overtime pay they said they were owed. They drove milk delivery trucks, so they were distributing perishable foods. But they didn't pack anything. If the language of the law means there's no overtime for distributing perishable foods, then the drivers should lose.

If the language means there's no overtime for packing foods in order to get them ready for shipment or distribution, then the drivers should win. 

There is disagreement among authorities about how to punctuate a list. Should we write "England, Scotland, and Wales," or should we write "England, Scotland and Wales?" The final comma in the first list is often called the "Oxford comma," supposedly because it is required by the Oxford University Press style guide. In the United States it is common to leave it out.

What do you think the court decided? To find out, see:

http://tinyurl.com/lvfl2yk

Mar 16, 2017 11:15 PM
Comments · 8

I personally happen to like the Oxford comma. I learned to use it at a very young age; I'm not sure how. Either I absorbed it by seeing it in writing, or possibly my mother told me to use it--not as anything important, just in passing. I seem to remember being told not to use it when I was in school. It was not a big deal, just one of those things. (My parents taught me to read the number 101 as "one hundred and one," and in school I was taught to read it as "one hundred one.")

In the US, I think that the Oxford comma is seen as being just a little bit formal. There seems to be a tendency for written English to evolve so as to use less and less punctuation. More punctuation is seen as a bit older, more formal, more dignified, more British. 

Regardless of style, a sentence or phrase may be clear or ambiguous. Often, the ambiguity is resolved by common sense and domain knowledge. (A Martian would have no way of knowing whether the American Cancer Society is for cancer or against it.)

Often, the biggest arguments arise over things that are unimportant. 99% of the time it doesn't make any difference in meaning and does not create any ambiguity whether or not the Oxford comma is used. Most of the example where it makes a difference are contrived. This is a rare situation where the language of the law, as written, really is ambiguous. Shame on the people who wrote it. There were many ways they could have made their meaning clear if they had been more careful.

In any case, the writer's first job is always to communicate a meaning. 


March 17, 2017

Yes, the comma made all the difference here. However, in my experience, the intent of the law should take precedence over the legal wording.

The court of appeals had other things in mind, and I just think it was too eager to set a "the worker is right" precedent rather than consider the "law as intended". The milk company probably didn't even know what hit them, and due to the ambiguous wording in state law, made millionaires out of three delivery people.

I just found the handling of the case a bit.... rich. I wondered if the courts referred to any precedents before judgement. Oh well, not much we can do. 

March 17, 2017

According to another news article, 

http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/15/health/oxford-comma-maine-court-case-trnd/

the essence of the decision was that the wording was ambiguous, and that "the judge observed that labor laws, when ambiguous, are designed to benefit the laborers." I can't speak to the question about labor getting the benefit of the doubt, but I agree completely that the language was ambiguous. 

I also agree that the use of the form "distribution," rather than "distributing" to make it parallel with the other verbs, weighs on the side of the drivers. If they'd wanted distributing to be exempt from over time, they'd have more likely written:

...The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment[,] or distributing of..."

I'm a little surprised the court didn't try to determine the legislative intent.

We shouldn't get too irritated at lawyers using legal language. It's understandable that they might want to use exact forms of words that have been tested in court, because creative editing just for style can be dangerous. It's proverbial that "a single comma can make a difference" in a legal document and this is an actual example in which it did.

March 17, 2017

Well, I'd say I'd have to exercise a bit of judgement and infer that she is not of supernatural origin nor related to the author. Perhaps, knowing how picky us readers can be, that speech wouldn't pass muster on Italki. 

That poor soul would probably find herself come back to Earth with a resounding crash, supernatural or not, hehe.

March 17, 2017

I'm not sure I have an opinion on whether the milk truck drivers should get overtime, but I do defend the Oxford comma. Mostly because of a story about a graduation speech which read, in part:

"I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

If her name were Mary Doe and she were thanking her "..parents, John Doe and Mary Smith," we would presume that she was thanking the two people, by name of John Doe and Mary Smith, who are her parents. We would not think that she was thanking four people: her parents, whom she has not named, someone named John Doe, and someone named Mary Smith.

So when she thanks her "...parents, Ayn Rand and God," should we presume that she is the child of the late novelist and the supreme deity?

If she had used an Oxford comma, we would not have to wonder.

March 17, 2017
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