by Cameron Hoeffler
Truck drivers in Maine take grammar very seriously. The Oxford comma may look like an insignificant period with a tail, but it is a powerful writing tool which recently played a vital role in a heavily contested ten million dollar lawsuit. Maine state law specifies that some services are not paid overtime; however, this law was unclear due to a lack of proper punctuation. This oversight left Oakhurst Dairy owing millions of dollars in truck driver overtime pay. Delivery people in Maine have proven that the Oxford comma is a crucial component of precise and legal writing.
In order to understand this entire lawsuit, you must first appreciate the comma at hand. Don’t know what an Oxford comma is? Not to worry, by the time you finish reading this paper, it will be permanently stamped into your brain. (You’re welcome.) The Oxford comma, also known as the “serial comma,” is used at the end of a list with three or more items. A classic example of this precise punctuation is, “The elephants, Winston Churchill and King George boarded the train.” Unless Winston Churchill and King George are elephants, in order to avoid embarrassing confusion, we need the Oxford comma: “The elephants, Winston Churchill, and King George boarded the train”. Most style guides in American English recommend the use of this controversial comma, and yet many major publications, including The New York Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as major law firms, do not recommend the use of this vital punctuation mark. I cannot figure out why. Gus Lubin, former Business Insider executive editor, explained the reasoning behind this anti-Oxford comma policy by declaring that, “The grammar snob's favorite mark is just a waste of space.” Truck drivers in Maine (and many other rational people outside of Maine) disagree with this opinion. If you find his remark offensive, please feel free to contact Gus Lubin through his social media, @twitofgus.
At this point, you may be wondering why this article exists at all. Well, I’m here to give you the answer to that question which is probably on so many minds right this minute. Who even cares about a little comma? Well, I’ll tell you: some truck drivers in Maine and I care.
In Maine, the law states that overtime will not be paid to workers for certain activities: “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” (Norris). A ten-million-dollar lawsuit was decided based on the fact that there is an Oxford comma missing between the words “shipment” and “or.” Without this comma, packing and delivery become one unit and, considering that truck drivers do not pack, they only deliver goods, they are exempt from this exemption. Thus, the Oakhurst Dairy owes them ten million dollars in backpay. The decision was appealed, but, on March 13, 2017, the case was decided in a higher court and, once again, it was settled in favor of the truck drivers. The decision serves as an excellent example of the value of this subtle little piece of punctuation.
A group of individuals who think that the use of the Oxford comma is pretentious and cumbersome does exist. There may have been a case for leaving it out when newspapers had to hand-set their print, and page space was limited. That is no longer true because one can now easily change font size. Surprisingly, the Maine legal Legislative Drafting Manual specifically says not to use the Oxford comma unless it is needed for “clarity” (Victor). In precise writing, is it not always best to ensure clarity? The ruling of both courts, in this case, would suggest that it is better to be pretentious and precise than to be ambiguous and open to interpretation.
There is no compelling reason to leave the Oxford comma out of any piece of written communication that would benefit from clarity. The serial comma separates the elements in a list so that the meaning cannot be disputed. The accusations of “pretension” and the “cumbersome use of extra space” (Lubin) do not hold a candle to the benefits of clear and concise communication. The Oakhurst Dairy lawsuit serves as a powerful example of what can happen if this extremely valuable punctuation mark is not correctly employed.