Tuesday, March 28, 2017

We Need the Oxford Comma

What is the Oxford comma? An article in The Guardian (here) explains:

The Oxford comma is used before the words “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things. Also known as the serial comma, its aficionados say it clarifies sentences in which things are listed.

As Grammarly notes, the sentences “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are a little different. Without a comma, it looks like the parents in question are, in fact, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

In a recent case in Maine, a statute omitted the Oxford comma, and, as a result, drivers for a dairy company were entitled to overtime pay. The statute included an exemption from the obligation to provide 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.

You will note that there is no comma after “shipment.” Therefore, the First Circuit held that the exemption applies only to employees who both pack and distribute the enumerated items. Here the drivers only distributed the items, so the exemption does not apply to them and therefore they are entitled to overtime:

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 . . . .

You can access the opinion here.

Of course, in some cases, the comma is not necessary for clarity, but these instances should be the exception rather than the rule.



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