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Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Power of an Oxford Comma

The Oxford (or "serial") comma is often considered to be of interest only to the worst sort of pedant (though "pedant" isn't actually a bad thing to be at all, not on the proper meaning of the word). It can however be crucial to the interpretation of a piece of writing - as a company in Maine found out recently. Relying on a statute which exempted from an obligation to pay overtime to employees engaged in “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution" of certain perishable products, it did not pay overtime to employees engaged solely in distribution. The District Court decided that distribution was a "stand-alone exempt activity", but the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit found that the lack of a serial comma to mark off the last listed activity meant that the provision was ambiguous. The state's default rule of construction required the court to resolve the ambiguity in favour of the beneficiaries of the exemption, namely the drivers. So, for want of an Oxford comma, the drivers got their overtime payments.

It wasn't that the court decided that the absence of the comma was in itself determinative: and I think it would clearly have been wrong had it so decided. To give the words the meaning contended for by the employers, it would have been necessary to obey the rules about parallel construction, inserting a conjunction (in this case "or") between "storing" and "packing", to make clear that "packing for shipment or distribution" was one activity. But how often do you see that rule obeyed?

Thanks to Thomson Reuters Legal Solutions Blog for alerting me to the story.

'via Blog this'

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