"For want of a comma, we have this case."

How a missing Oxford comma won the case for some US truck driversScreengrab/Oakhurst.com
news International Friday, March 17, 2017 - 18:53

 The Oxford comma has managed to settle a dispute been truck drivers and the dairy company which employs them over an issue of overtime pay.

On this occasion, the ruling favoured the drivers and could potentially cost the company a lot of money.

Drivers working for Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy in the United States had approached a labour court seeking extra pay for packing the food items they transported, which they claimed was extra work.

Ruling in their favour, the judge wrote: "For want of a comma, we have this case."

They ruled that that the contract referred to packing and distribution as separate tasks as they were not separated by a comma.

The state’s law says that the following activities wouldn’t count for overtime pay:

"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."

But since there is no comma after ‘packing for shipment’, the court ruled that the packing work done by drivers cannot be exempt from overtime pay.

“Specifically, if that [list of exemptions] used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform," the circuit judge wrote in his judgement.

“We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption,” the judgement added.

The drivers had approached the appeals court after a district court had ruled in favour of the company.

The court gave the workers a benefit of doubt over this ambiguity stating that labour laws were created to benefit employees.

The court said that according to the part of the contract mentioning the duties not qualifying as extra work, the drivers did not have to pack the perishable food but only distribute them.

So a comma after “shipment” would have given scope to such claim by the drivers.

CNN reported incidentally in the state of Maine, the legislation process guidelines does not include the usage of serial commas.

You can read the full judgement here.

Oxford commas

Oxford commas also known as the serial comma or the Harvard comma is defined as final comma in a list of things, a Grammarly blog explains.

For example, consider the statement: “Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.” Here, the comma right after eraser is an Oxford comma.

Although, in the above sentence it seemed redundant, it helps in some sentences like the following.

“I love my parents, Donald Trump, and Narendra Modi.”

Without the Oxford comma (comma after Donald Trump), the sentence could suggest that the names of the parents were Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

However, the sentence could be re-written without using an Oxford comma by re-arranging the three.

“I love Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and my parents.”

The Oxford Dictionary describes it as an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of the list.

It says, “Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words.”

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