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:
Meat and fish product; and
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.”