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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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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.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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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This Just In
How Much Does a Missing Comma Cost? For One Dairy in Maine, $5 Million
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Copy editors aren’t the only ones who should respect the value of the Oxford comma. Since 2014, a dairy company in Portland, Maine has been embroiled in a lawsuit whose success or failure hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The suit is finally over, as The New York Times reports, and die-hard Oxford comma-lovers won (as did the delivery drivers who brought the suit).

The drivers’ class action lawsuit claimed that Oakhurst Dairy owed them years in back pay for overtime that the company argues they did not qualify for under state law. The law reads that employees in the following fields do not qualify for the time-and-a-half overtime pay that other workers are eligible for if they work more than 40 hours a week:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish product; and

(3) Perishable foods

Notice that it says the “packing for shipment or distribution” and not “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” This raised a legal question: Should dairy distributors get overtime if they didn’t pack and distribute the product?

The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which ruled that the lack of comma made the law ambiguous enough to qualify the drivers for their overtime pay, overturning the lower court’s verdict that the state legislature clearly intended for distribution to be part of the exemption list on its own.

In early February, the company agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, ending the lawsuit—and, sadly, preventing us from ever hearing the Supreme Court’s opinions on the Oxford comma.

Future delivery drivers for the dairy won’t be so lucky. Since the comma kerfuffle began, the Maine legislature has rewritten the statute. Instead of embracing the Oxford comma, though—as we at Mental Floss would recommend—lawmakers decided to double down on their semicolons. It now reads:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Come on, guys. What do you have against the serial comma?

[h/t The New York Times]

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