Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How One Missing Oxford Comma Changed an Entire Legal Decision


Punctuation matters, especially in legal documents. Paul Bradbury/Getty Images
Punctuation matters, especially in legal documents. Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

For all the Facebook posts that fail to use correct punctuation, and for all the grammar geeks who insist on pointing out the errors: there's compelling new evidence that, well, the geeks are right.

A labor dispute in Maine was just decided based entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma. Before we delve into the case, though, let's examine the Oxford comma. Also known as the serial comma, this punctuation mark is the final comma in a list of things. For example, in the phrase "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God," the missing comma before "and" gives the author a legendary set of parents, indicating the writer is the offspring of those two individuals. It's easy to see how an Oxford comma can separate specific items in a list.

The comma is called the Oxford comma because it is required by the Oxford University Press style guidelines. There are other, equally respected and used style guides, like the Associated Press style guide, which prohibit the use of a serial comma. Examples of both exist in media, with news sources preferring AP style and other publications relying on the Oxford comma. There's also plenty of passionate debate about the merits of each style, elevating the comma to celebrity status among grammarians and the like.

Recently, the comma was the center of a labor dispute between drivers and the company for whom they worked. While the drivers insisted they deserved overtime pay for delivering dairy products, the company disagreed, pointing instead to a state law that spelled out work activities that did not lead to 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.

The answer, the judge determined, existed in the first sentence (emphasis added). Without an Oxford comma before the word "or," it could be interpreted to mean that, because the drivers weren't packing  items intended either for shipment or distribution, then they could be paid overtime. But with the comma? Then the sentence would have contained separate activities: "packing for shipment" would have been its own distinct activity, as would "distribution" have been. With packing and distribution listed as two separate things that didn't warrant overtime, the dairy drivers' case would have been lost.

But, because of the lack of a comma, it wasn't. When labor laws are unclear, the justice system is designed to benefit the laborers, said the judge, who ruled in favor of the dairy drivers. "For want of a comma, we have this case," the judge wrote in a statement. 



More to Explore