By James Longley
The New York Times recently reported on a decision in a class-action lawsuit that could cost a Maine dairy an estimated $10 million in unpaid overtime for delivery drivers. The crux of the case? A single comma in a single state law. Yes, punctuation warriors, this was a case of an absent Oxford or serial comma, reviled by some, revered by others.
A quick refresher: In a list of three or more items (e.g., “Beer is made of water, hops and barley”), proponents of the serial comma would put a comma after “hops.” Others insist on leaving it out.
At N2, we generally advocate the use of the serial comma. But we have plenty of clients who prefer to avoid it, and we’re always happy to accommodate that style decision, except, EXCEPT when there is any risk of ambiguity. As Robert DeNiro said in Ronin, “If there’s any doubt, there is no doubt.” You’ve got to get that serial comma in there or just rewrite the sentence from scratch. What was once a low-stakes matter of taste can quickly become a matter of intense dispute and serious financial consequences, as the Times reported:
Note the lack of Oxford comma—also known as the serial comma—in the following state law, which says overtime rules do 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.
Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them? Delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but they don’t pack the boxes themselves. Whether the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence was read.
If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court on Monday sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor. It reversed a lower court decision.
In other words: Oxford comma defenders won this round.
No matter who wins the next battle the ongoing style wars, the real winners are those who invest in carefully crafting and editing their content, state lawmakers included. The only other winners are the journalists who get assigned stories like this, because they get to come up with example sentences that read disastrously without the serial comma. We’ll leave you with what we presume is Daniel Victor’s example from the Times piece:
“I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”
James Longley is an editor and writer at N2 with an expertise in tech and data. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, lives in the Bay Area, and has a slight preference for the serial comma. See what he did there?
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