How a missing comma cost this company a lot of money

February 20th, 2018

The comma is perhaps one of the most carelessly used punctuation in the English language. And many have debated over the use of Oxford comma or the serial comma. But who would have thought that forgetting to use the Oxford comma can actually cost you a lot of money? Well, this dairy company did and we should all learn from it.

An Oxford comma or a serial comma is used in a list of three or more words and placed before “and” or “or.” For example:

Oxford comma, meme,

via Imgur

Drivers of Oakhurst Dairy filed a lawsuit against their employer in 2014 about a dispute over their overtime pay. Though an earlier court ruled in favor of the company, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit overturned the ruling in favor of the drivers. And the drivers eventually won the case. The company settled $5M to the drivers for their overtime pay in accordance to the labor law of Maine.

oxford comma

The dispute was about the tasks that are exempted from overtime pay. The law was originally penned this way:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
1. Agricultural produce;
2. Meat and fish product; and
3. Perishable foods

Due to the lack of Oxford comma, “packing for shipment or distribution” is considered just one activity that’s exempted from the overtime pay. The drivers do not pack perishable foods, but they distribute perishable foods–milk. But since the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of perishable foods” failed to clearly separate the two activities, they’re not exempted from overtime pay.

There was also a grammatical argument: each of the words that describe an exempt activity—canning, processing, preserving, and so on—are in gerund forms. But “distribution” was used as a noun. So it means that if “distribution” is an exempt activity, it should have been phrased as “distributing of perishable foods.”

Boom! They won the case!

oxford comma, meme, gif

via Giphy

The lawmakers have since then revised the law and they made sure that it’s VERY clear now:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:
1. Agricultural produce;
2. Meat and fish products; and
3. Perishable foods.

Next time, make sure you use the Oxford comma where necessary or it may just cost you a lot of money!

Life, liberty, and the Oxford comma

— Hayley G. Hoover (@hayleyghoover) February 5, 2018

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