The Oxford comma or a serial comma is an English language punctuation that created quite a controversial subject around its existence. Editors, writers, style guides, amateurs have been engaging in lengthy debates for ages regarding this issue. However, the ruling of a recent class-action lawsuit might have just settled this controversy once and for all.
The Oxford Comma Played Main Role in a Class-Action Lawsuit
In 2014, three truck drivers filed suit against their company, Oakhurst Dairy. They sought to receive the entitlement to overtime for at least four years’ time. The employer denied them this request, so they moved the matter to the court. The Maine law usually requires companies to pay 1.5 times more for each hour worked after 40 hours. However, there are some exceptions.
The lawsuit ended up revolving around the inexistence of the Oxford comma in a state law regarding the types of activities that are not taken into consideration for overtime pay:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish products; and
The lack of punctuation raises a series of questions. Thus, the same extract can be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, the law exempts the distribution of the three types of activities from the rule. Secondly, the exemption concerns packing for shipment or distribution of the three categories.
Without the Right Punctuation, Court Found Law Line Poorly Written
In practice, delivery drivers handle perishable foods, but not the packaging of the boxes. Based on one of the interpretations of the law extract, drivers were annually denied thousands of dollars. Thus, on Monday the court ruled in favor of the Oxford comma defenders. Their reasoning was that the lack of such a punctuation mark made the law text ambiguous. Thus, the court didn’t exclude distribution from the law. However, the ruling did find the clause to be a poorly constructed sentence.
The authorities involved in the lawsuit relied on the language guidelines specified in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual. According to this book, lawmakers are encouraged to avoid the overuse of the Oxford comma. However, the same text advises the authorities to proceed with caution in their choice of punctuation marks if an item in the series suffers modifications. These ambiguous guidelines contribute to the controversial nature of the serial comma.
Image source: 1