By now, you may have seen the story of the $10 million dollar Oxford comma. In essence, a Maine-based dairy company may be on the hook for up to $10 million in overtime pay to truck drivers, and the culprit is a comma in a state law. At the heart of the dispute lies a Maine labor law clause, which enumerates work that is exempt from the state’s overtime pay laws. It’s a big deal, because–like many other US states–Maine employers are required to pay time and a half for overtime hours. The clause states that the following tasks are not eligible for overtime:
“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.”
The dairy company’s truck drivers recently took a break from distributing perishable foods, and successfully argued that the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “distribution” indicates that “packing for shipment or distribution” is one task, not two, and thus they are entitled to overtime pay, to the tune of $10 million. Had the clause read “packing for shipment, or distribution of…,” then it would be clear that packing and distributing are two separate tasks, neither one eligible for time and a half pay.
I highly recommend that you stop what you’re doing right this second, and read this New Yorker article by the venerable Mary Norris, who’s crunched copy at the New Yorker since 1978. In her article, Norris sums up the situation. “Nothing, but nothing—profanity, transgender pronouns, apostrophe abuse—excites the passion of grammar geeks more than the serial, or Oxford, comma.” So true. Oxford comma-haters deride serial commas as clunky, distracting, and totally unnecessary. Defenders point to turns of phrase such as “I’d like to thank my parents, Pope Francis and Jesus,” as being standalone proof of the serial comma’s value.
The path of least resistance is to always use the Oxford comma, because then people know exactly what you mean. But, even as someone who is 95% in the Oxford camp, I’ll agree that sometimes, it’s just plain clunky. The sentence, “My daughter loves to play softball, soccer, tennis, lawn darts, and ping pong,” could probably survive without that last comma. But the point that grammarians so frequently make–if there’s any room for misinterpretation, stick the darned comma in there–is one that Oakhurst Dairy of Portland, Maine, has now learned the hard way.