An Oxford Comma Decided the Fate of a Maine Court Case

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As Vampire Weekend once wisely pondered; “who gives a fuck about an oxford comma?” A fair question, considering the Oxford comma is an optional punctuation one can add before a coordinating conjunction (such as “and” or “or”). Such a minuscule detail in sentence construction could hardly change the trajectory of anyone’s day, right?

As it happens, a certain US court of appeals in Maine very much cares about the oft-overlooked Oxford comma.

On March 13, the aforementioned court ruled in favor of five drivers for Oakhurst Dairy, a milk and cream company, who argued with their employers over whether certain aspects of their work constituted as overtime or not. The court cited Maine’s laws as being ambiguously written. The following was the Maine state law the court referenced as work activities that do not qualify for overtime payment:

“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 issue lies in the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or,” which uncertainly either designates “packing” or “packing and distributing” as activities exempt from overtime payment.

However, in the end, US appeals judge David J. Barron ruled that only those who pack the products are exempt from said payment, but the drivers are not. It looks like utilizing proper grammar literally does pay off.

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