$10 Million Dollar Comma

By, Clara Halston

Does Ms. Ryan really enjoy cooking her family and her pets?  Does the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution indeed endow each citizen with the individual right to carry a gun, regardless of membership in the local militia?  Why was the name of Winsor’s own LOC changed just days after the lettering was first added to the building?  And, finally, should Oakhurst Dairy’s truck drivers be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for hours worked overtime?  

The answers to each of these seemingly complex questions (perhaps the first question aside) are dependent on a simple but often overlooked grammatical rule: the Oxford comma, sometimes referred to by linguists and authors as “the most polarizing of punctuation marks.”  In recent years, the Oxford comma has played a pivotal role in a class-action lawsuit regarding overtime pay for truck drivers.  The case, which was decided in the United States Court of Appeals, was described by New York Times contributor Daniel Victor as “an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry;” however, its outcome could cost Oakhurst Dairy of Portland, Maine, $10 million.      

In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy for the over four years’ worth of overtime pay that they had supposedly been denied.  Maine law clearly states that workers working over 40 consecutive hours are required to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate; however, there are numerous exemptions to the law that act in the interests of the state’s companies.  Maine law asserts that its “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.”

This is where the Oxford comma comes in. The truck drivers involved in the lawsuit questioned whether the law was stating that overtime rules did not apply to packing for shipment OR distribution of agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods or whether it was stating that overtime rules did not apply to the packing for either shipment or distribution of the three categories.  In other words, the overtime payment of the truck drivers was entirely dependent on one’s reading of the sentence and the presence (or absence) of a single comma: a comma after the word “shipment” would suggest that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods; however, without the comma, the law could be read to mean that overtime rules do not apply to packing for either the shipment or the distribution of the three food categories.  The absence of the comma caused enough ambiguity that the appeals court ruled in favor of the truck drivers, thereby supporting the use of the Oxford comma.  In fact, David G. Webbert, a lawyer representing the truck drivers in the trial, stated in a recent interview that “[The presence of] that comma would have sunk our ship.”  

The Oakhurst Dairy lawsuit draws attention to an interesting grammatical debate that has caused disputes in the reading of constitutional amendments, in the publications and broadcasts of news organizations, and even between bloggers arguing over language issues.  In a statement following the decision of the Oakhurst Dairy lawsuit, the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual remarked that “commas are the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language.”  

A 2014 survey by FiveThirtyEight and Survey Monkey found that 57% of 1,129 Americans supported usage of the Oxford comma while 43% opposed its usage.  However, until more universal support is established for the Oxford comma, the best we can do is to avoid creating unnecessary cannibalistic confusion by taking the split-second to insert that law-defining, money-making, trial-deciding comma.