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Oxford comma makes news

Most of the time, we communicate in order to be understood. Sometimes, we—or our characters—intentionally seek to mislead, deceive, or confuse others, but, by and large, when we speak and write, we hope our meaning will not be misconstrued.

Clarity is especially important in the contracts we sign and the laws we must follow. Ambiguity creates opportunities for differing interpretations. In the event of a dispute, those ambiguities can be costly. In 2014, three truck drivers sued their employer, a Maine dairy, for overtime pay they claimed they were due under state law. An appellate court recently ruled that the law was unclear. Why? A comma was missing.

Jobs relating to the packaging and shipment of perishable foods are exempt from Maine’s overtime requirement. (I worked briefly at a salmon cannery* in Alaska the summer after I graduated from college. At the time, those jobs were popular among college students because of the overtime pay. When the fish arrived, they had to be cleaned up and shipped out quickly, and that meant days of long hours until the job was done. A lot of tuition money could be earned in a short time.)

According to an article in the New York Times, Maine’s exemption applied to the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” perishable foods.

Does that mean:
a) the packing for shipment or distribution is exempt, or
b) the packing for shipment is exempt, and the distribution of perishable foods is also exempt?
(Truck drivers don’t pack, but they do “distribute.” If the exemption applies to them, then they are not eligible for overtime pay.)

What is the Oxford comma?

I’m a fan of the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma because, according to the Oxford Dictionary, the comma was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press). In a list of three or more items that are separated by commas, style manuals differ over whether the final comma is required:

Chicago Manual of Style (yes): She stopped at the beauty salon before buying a gun, driving home, and shooting her husband.

Associated Press Stylebook (no): “Give me a cheeseburger, chocolate shake and a side of fries.”

AP allows for the use of an additional comma when necessary to avoid ambiguity, but I prefer the consistency achieved by following a simple rule—and not all the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation are logical, straightforward, or simple.

An earlier Times article noted that Maine’s Legislative Drafting Manual requires omitting the final comma and opines that commas are “the most misused and misunderstood puncutation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language.”

I think that distinction goes to the semicolon—which is what a Maine legislator used when revising the disputed law. The new version exempts the “canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of” perishable foods.

As for the truck drivers, the dairy agreed to pay them $5 million.

*Though the cleaned fish were frozen rather than canned, the traditional reference to “canneries” often continues to be used.

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