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Ducks in a Row: Cost Of A Comma

by Miki Saxon

https://www.flickr.com/photos/allenthepostman/2223927152/

Yesterday I promised to share how the lack of a common comma lost a lawsuit upon appeal.

A Maine court ruling in a case about overtime pay and dairy delivery didn’t come down to trucks, milk, or money. Instead, it hinged on one missing comma. (…) On March 13, a US court of appeals determined that certain clauses of Maine’s overtime laws are grammatically ambiguous. Because of that lack of clarity, the five drivers have won their lawsuit against Oakhurst, and are eligible for unpaid overtime.

And, as every company knows, overtime is costly.

The comma in question isn’t a true commoner, not with an Oxford University Press pedigree; it is a serial comma and one might even consider it a titled comma.

It was the relationship between the comma and lists that housed the seeds of lawsuit destruction. To clarify,

According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify 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.

There, in the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or,” the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued.

(…) all the other exempted activities were listed as gerunds, words ending with “-ing”: Canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing. The word “distribution,” they argued, was therefore not intended to be one of the items in the list.

Unlike me, my ESL clients often err on the side of overuse, whereas for years I deleted commas after ‘and’ and ‘or’, but no longer.

Now I consider the actual content and context and, like the court, determine the meaning before using the delete key.

Image credit: allen watkin

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