The Oxford comma is perhaps the most controversial piece of punctuation known to man. But fans of the contested comma can rejoice, for the Oxford comma was a deciding factor in a different controversy, completely unrelated to grammar.
For those who aren't grammar Nazis, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) indicates the final item on a list. Some argue that the comma is superfluous. Others claim that it is essential. It's the difference between, "We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin" and "We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin."
But Oakhurst Dairy is now probably kicking themselves for omitting the punctuation mark. The Portland, Maine-based dairy found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit with a group of dairy truck drivers. The truck drivers were fighting to receive unpaid overtime pay from the dairy company and the matter was so close, it was down to the letter, er, comma.
Judge David Barron ended up ruling in favor of the truck drivers because of the comma was omitted in a list of activities that constituted overtime pay. Because of the missing comma, Oakhurst Dairy lost the dispute over $10 million in overtime pay for 75 Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers.
Because the comma was so noticeably absent, Judge Barron stated that the law is unclear if "packing for shipping or distribution" is one complete item or if "packing for shipping" and "distribution" are two separate tasks. Truck drivers do not pack food, they only deliver it. If "packing for shipping or distribution" is one activity, then it does not apply to the truck drivers, meaning Oakhurst Dairy has to pay up.
Judge Barron acknowledged the importance of the Oxford comma in his ruling. “For want of a comma, we have this case,” said Judge Barron in the opening line of his 30-page decision. All fans of the Oxford comma are probably celebrating this ruling waaay more than the truck drivers!
"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," said Judge Barron.
Different style guides have different rules about the use of the Oxford comma, adding to the contested comma's controversy. The comma is named after the Oxford University Press editors who used it. However, the AP Style Guide advocates not using the Oxford comma, unless leaving it out would cause confusion in how the sentence is read.
Interestingly enough, the style guide for drafting legislation in Maine also advocates not using the Oxford comma. "Although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don't use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series," reads the rule. The style guide also does state that the sentence should be restructured if it is unclear when reading.
Judge Barron acknowledges that the style guide for Maine legislation instructs to omit the Oxford comma in his ruling, however that hasn't changed his mind on the matter. Additionally, it's completely possible that a different judge would have made a different decision regarding the Oxford comma and overtime pay.
It's likely that this court case will see other court proceedings before it is settled. But the real question is, will the court case get even more nit picky with spelling and grammar? What punctuation marks will be brought into the mess next?
So who's the real winner of this court case? Anyone and everyone who has ever been irked at the lack of an Oxford comma in a list. Watch out, because your grammar Nazi friends now have a precedent to cite!