Another Million-Dollar Comma

0410DRAFTarkle-blog427Or, in this case, a $10 million comma. Yes, it's another legal battle where meaning is questioned because of a comma-more precisely, a missing Oxford comma. Business communication students know it well: that last comma in a series your instructor encourages you to insert for clarity, even though most major newspapers don't use it, and your middle school teacher didn't make such a fuss about it.

Truck drives for a dairy company, Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy, sued for $10 million in overtime pay because Maine's overtime statutes are unclear.

Maine OT

A Smithsonian news report summarizes the dispute related to F, "The canning, processing, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of":

The dairy argued that "packing for shipment" and "distribution" were two different jobs and that thus, overtime was inappropriate. But the drivers argued that "packing for shipment or distribution" is what was intended by the law-and that since they only deliver goods instead of packing them, they were owed money.

An appeals court ruled in favor of the drivers, even though Maine's own legal style guide suggests omitting the Oxford comma. But, the court argued that the comma should be used when clarity is needed, which of course, is the case here. A New Orleans columnist called it "the nerdiest dispute ever."
Discussion Starters:
  • Does this change your thinking about the Oxford comma, or do you still consider it a waste of time and space?
  • What's your view of the court's ruling? Did the judge make the right decision? Why or why not?