If you ever need an example of the practical importance of grammar, you might try to remember the story of a dairy company in Portland, Maine. In this case, it is the absence of what is known as the “Oxford comma” that could end up costing the company a cool $10 million.

Drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sought overtime pay for over four years’ worth of work, and whether they got it hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in the state law governing their pay.

An Oxford comma is the comma you put before the last thing in a list. “Today I had soup, salad, steak, and peas.” The state law said that overtime rules did 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.
According to the decision:

[I]f 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 he exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.

In other words, if the law had  had the Oxford comma, the company would not have had to pay the overtime. But since it didn’t, it was not clear what was exempted, and the court ruled in favor of the drivers—and the company may be on the hook for $10 million.

As The New York Times put it:

In other words: Oxford comma defenders won this round.

“That comma would have sunk our ship,” David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, said in an interview on Wednesday.

All for the lack of a comma.

 

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