It’s a topic that is probably far more taboo than politics and religion. It has caused debates among even the sharpest of minds and now is possibly the cause of a class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers. You guessed right. It’s the Oxford comma.
It would seem that one little punctuation mark could cause a dairy company in Portland, Maine, over $10 million dollars.
It started back in 2014 when three of the company’s truck drivers decided to sue Oakhurst Dairy for nearly four years’ worth of overtime pay that they felt had been denied of them during their employment with the company. It’s a law in Maine that workers be given 1.5 times their normal wage rate for every hour they work after 40 hours. However, that also comes with a few exemptions and stipulations.
So in order to understand why the three truckers felt slighted in their overtime pay, we first have to review what we all know about the Oxford or, as some call it, serial comma. When you have a list of items in a sentence—like “coats, hats, and shoes”—some would say that a comma should go after hats in the sentence. Other grammarians feel, rather strongly I might add, that there shouldn’t be.
One might say that to argue over punctuation is rather absurd, but for the truck drivers who sought compensation that was not the case at all. The law in question, as stated below, lacks the Oxford comma.
It says that overtime does not apply to: The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
- Agricultural produce;
- Meat and fish product; and
- Perishable foods.
So the real question is what is exempt from the law? Is it the distribution of the three items that follow, or could it be the packing for the shipment of the distribution for those three? The drivers dispersed the perishable foods but didn’t partake in the packaging of the boxes. If the truck drivers got the money in overtime that they were fighting for completely depends on how the court would read the law above.
Had there been a comma placed after “shipment” the law might have read that there is an exemption for the distributions of perishable foods. Yet when the issue came to court at the beginning of the week, the appeals court chose to side with the drivers. The court believed that a lack of a comma added too much uncertainty and the suit came out in the truck drivers’ favor.
Although just three drivers filed the suit against the dairy company, more than 75 of them will split the money. It’s reported that the drivers make an estimated 46,800 and 52,000 per year without overtime added. Yet they worked an extra 12 hours of overtime per week.
Many companies and laws do not add the Oxford comma to their writing. The same goes for the guidelines of the Maine Legislation Drafting Manual. Lawmakers were not supposed to use the Oxford comma during the writing of the law. So technically the law was written correctly according to its language standards.
Most news organizations in America will leave the Oxford comma out unless there are situations that would be unclear without it. The Associated Press, which is basically the authority for nearly all American news, isn’t in favor the comma’s usage either.
It’s usually used in academic and book publishing. The Chicago Manual of Style is an avid user of the comma as well as the Oxford University Press style who says that the comma “can serve to resolve ambiguity.”
Back in 2014, FiveThirtyEight and SurveMonkey Audience surveyed 1.129 Americans and came to the conclusion that nearly 57 percent of them prefer the use of the Oxford comma while 43 percent weren’t too in favor of the punctuation mark.
However, the Maine Legislation Drafting Manual does add that in the circumstances of the series being modified caution should be taken by readers. It states that, “Commas are the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and perhaps the English language.”