If you don’t think the Oxford comma is necessary, a federal court’s recent decision will tell you otherwise. The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of delivery drivers who claimed they were eligible for overtime pay under Maine’s regulations. Their argument relied on the absence of a serial comma in the law.
In the case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, a milk and cream company contested the claim of five delivery drivers for overtime pay, saying the state’s overtime laws exempted such pay. A lower court that first heard the case decided in favor of Oakhurst Dairy, but the appeals court disagreed in its decision on March 13.
The state law says the following activities are exempt from overtime pay: “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.”
At issue was the missing comma between “shipment” and “or.” The appeals court said the absence of a comma made the phrase ambiguous. Does “packing for shipment or distribution” refer to a single activity? If the comma had been present, it would clearly mean that shipment and distribution are two activities under “packing” that are both overtime-exempt.
The absence of the comma means the overtime exemption applies to workers who pack for shipment. Meanwhile, the delivery drivers’ job entailed distribution, not packing for shipment, so they were not exempt from overtime pay.
The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court. It also effectively vindicated all those who believe in the serial comma. I’m one of those people! Yes, Virginia, one little comma in a series of items can make a big difference.
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