Saturday, October 16, 2021
Like many, I use “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” in my legal writing classes. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Gv0H-vPoDc. In the past few years, I have added a note about not calling each other “morons” when I play the video. Nonetheless, the song and lyrics still have great examples about why we need Oxford commas, correct apostrophes, and other basic punctuation, all to a catchy tune. Often, I pair this discussion with an analysis of the 2018 Maine dairy delivery drivers’ dispute about a missing comma and overtime pay. See https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/15/health/oxford-comma-maine-court-case-trnd/index.html. I’ve blogged about the Maine case before, as it leads to great teaching discussions. See also Kelly Gurnett, A Win for the Oxford Comma: This Lawsuit Shows Why It’s So Important (updated Nov. 2, 2020), https://thewritelife.com/is-the-oxford-comma-necessary/ (“For anyone who’s ever wondered what all the fuss is about over Oxford commas, the circuit judge’s [dairy drivers’ pay] opinion says it all: ‘For want of a comma, we have this case.’”).
This month, the District Court of New South Wales in Australia gave us another ruling on punctuation, this time involving defamation and a Facebook post. See https://www.theguardian.com/law/2021/oct/10/missing-apostrophe-in-facebook-post-lands-nsw-real-estate-agent-in-legal-hot-water. As New York Times writer Livia Albeck-Ripka explained in her article on the case, “a missing apostrophe in a Facebook post could cost a real estate agent in Australia tens of thousands of dollars after a court ruled a defamation case against him could proceed.” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/11/world/australia/facebook-post-missing-apostrophe-defamation.html#:~:text=Missing%20Apostrophe%20in%20Facebook%20Post%20Lands%20a%20Man%20in%20Defamation,mark%20may%20cost%20him%20thousands.
In his Facebook post, real estate agent Anthony Zadravic appeared to accuse Stuart Gan, his former employer at a real estate agency, of not paying into the Australian government retirement fund for all of the agency’s employees, and not just for one employee. Zadravic’s Facebook post stated:
Oh Stuart Gan!! Selling multi million $ homes in Pearl Beach but can’t pay his employees superannuation [for the Australian retirement system]. Shame on you Stuart!!! 2 yrs and still waiting!!!
Id. Gan filed a defamation claim against Zadravic, alleging the Facebook post improperly stated Gan had not paid his contributions for any of his employees, since Zadravic did not use an apostrophe in “employees.”
Although Zadravic explained he meant the singular “employee’s” contributions for his own account, the court refused to dismiss Gan’s case. The court ruled the plural “employees” without an apostrophe could “be read to suggest a ‘systematic pattern of conduct’ by Mr. Gan’s agency rather than an accusation involving one employee.” Id. Thus, the judge allowed the defamation case to move forward.
While there are lower standards for defamation in Australia than in the United States, for example, the punctuation point is well-taken. Just as we teach our students to be cautious in their work texts and avoid imprecise language, emojis, and the like, we should also caution them be careful not only in content, but also in language on social media.
My teen/twenty-something sons will roll their eyes (via emojis, no doubt) at my suggestion we use proper grammar on social media. However, when our students and newer associates are posting about professional matters, they should err on the side of caution. Many employers, in fact, have strict guidelines on social media posts, and using proper punctuation helps ensure compliance.
Thus, whether we use the dairy drivers, “Weird Al’s” YouTube videos, or now the Facebook apostrophe case, we have several fun sources to encourage discussion and create teaching moments on commas, apostrophes, and more.