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An Oxford Comma Helped Decide a Labor Dispute in Maine

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If often seems as if the ongoing war over the Oxford comma is likely to rage on for as long as there is a written word. Proponents of it claim that the comma is necessary in order to cut through any confusion in a sentence (it's also the side we here at mental_floss fall on). Critics, however, say that the comma is superfluous, clunky, and maybe even a little bit elitist. But one dairy company in Maine just found out that the Oxford comma isn’t just helpful—it could also keep you out of court.

Recently, CNN reports, a group of delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy went to court against the company, claiming that they are not exempt from the state’s overtime laws and should receive the years of overtime pay they were denied by the company. They were eventually vindicated when an appeals court sided with the drivers and ruled that the state’s laws were written too ambiguously when it comes to what is exempt from overtime pay. Here’s the specific sentence in the state law that categorizes the acts that are ineligible for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Agricultural produce;
Meat and fish product; and
Perishable foods

Look at that first sentence. Notice anything missing? If you’re a pro-Oxford zealot, then it’s probably like nails on a chalkboard. In its current form, it’s easy to think that “packing for shipment or distribution” just encompasses the literal act of packing a truck for shipment. The drivers successfully argued that they don’t physically pack the trucks; they only distribute the items inside. Even though Oakhurst argued that the intent of the law was to keep "distribution" as a separate act, that's not how it was interpreted. And since the drivers don't pack, the court ruled that they aren't exempt from overtime pay.

With a simple Oxford comma, the sentence would be much more clear: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of…” Without it, though, chaos rules. In fact, all of Maine’s laws are written without the Oxford comma, so this might not be the last punctuation-related case that goes to court.

It might seem unnecessary and superfluous to some, but in this instance, a simple Oxford comma could have saved this dairy company a lot of money and legal headaches. As U.S. appeals judge David J. Barron wrote, "For want of a comma, we have this case.”

[h/t CNN]

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grammar
Why You Shouldn't Trust the New Study That Supports Putting Two Spaces After a Period
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Writers, style guides, and people who spend a lot of time reading generally agree that one space after a period is highly preferable to two, but there remains a small group of people who refuse to let go of this convention left over from the typewriter era. Now, two-space devotees have a scientific study on their side. As The Verge reports, a new paper from Skidmore College psychologists suggests that adding two spaces after each period makes text easier to read.

For the study, researchers gathered 60 college students and had them write out a paragraph to determine if they were one-spacers or two-spacers. Next, they asked them to read a sample text while wearing eye-tracking devices. They found that subjects who read the paragraphs styled with two spaces spent less time focusing on the punctuation at the end of each sentence (likely because the extra space made it clearer where the sentence stopped). Students who used two spaces in their own writing read faster when given the two-spaced text.

But don't expect the new findings to shake up style standards any time soon. The study authors admit that while reading text with just one space after each sentence leads to more time spent scanning for periods, the effects are minimal. People in the one-space camp read the paragraphs just as fast regardless of how the text was styled, and the difference in spacing didn't impact reading comprehension in either group. The researchers also used a monospaced font for the study, which may be good for an experiment that requires consistency, but isn't exactly representative of the fonts readers encounter in everyday life.

The question of spacing is as old as typesetting itself. The first printers had two space sizes: a regular one for separating words and a slightly larger one—the emspace—for separating sentences. When typewriters hit the scene, the emspace was replaced with two spaces, and this style of writing was standard for decades. A divide emerged with the advent of more advanced typesetting technology around the mid-1900s. It got easier for printing companies to achieve uniform spacing, and adding two spaces after periods, which many people agree looks sloppy and jarring, started to fall out of fashion. But while the typewriter has disappeared from desks, the two-space method has stuck around. This new study suggests it will likely be with us for a bit longer.

[h/t The Verge]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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