Thursday, March 16, 2017

The very valuable Oxford comma

I have been a lifetime devotee of the "Oxford comma," which demands a comma before the conjunction in a series. Sadly, this valuable punctuation mark has largely disappeared from American usage, leaving readers regularly baffled as to what a sentence actually means. I notice it almost every day in the Wall Street Journal, which is otherwise nearly flawless in its use of the language.

Meanwhile, a Maine dairy company may have to spend $10 million because a comma might have been inserted in the following rule for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
If the final phrase means "packing for shipping OR distribution," then the truckers who delivered the products weren't eligible for overtime pay, because they didn't do any packing. This is what the Oakhurst lawyer meant to say. The truckers sued, saying that "packing for shipping" was a different concept than "distribution," so that distributors (the truckers) also qualified for overtime pay.

The appeals court agreed that the sentence was unclear, so decided in favor of the truckers.

Funnily enough, if the lawyer HAD inserted a comma, the truckers would have qualified for overtime pay without any argument. The solution here was to rewrite the sentence, which anyone would have done who regularly obeyed the Oxford comma. To exclude them, it should have said: "... marketing, storing, OR packing for shipping or distribution ..."


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