Comma, comma, and comma!

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Did you eat eggs, toast, and milk this morning? What about eggs, toast and milk? Don’t see the difference? Well, unless you enjoy soggy bread, you might want to give that some further thought.

The Oxford Comma – also known as the Harvard or serial comma, this “optional” form of punctuation has become a popular subject for grammatical discourse. But aside from confused breakfasts, what’s the big deal? For a group of Maine dairy drivers, that little piece of punctuation just spelled out victory in court.

The labor dispute arose over alleged unpaid wages, with plaintiffs’ employer arguing the drivers were exempt under Maine’s overtime law which provides the following activities do not merit 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.

Did you pick up on the difference there? The Court did. Specifically, the statute is ambiguous as to whether “packing for shipment” and “distribution” are separate activities.

According to the drivers, they distribute food but they don’t pack it. Had there been an Oxford Comma – isolating distribution as its own activity – plaintiffs would have been clearly exempt from overtime wage. However, without that separation, the phrase may equally be read as “packing for shipment” or “packing for distribution”. And because labor laws are designed to protect employees, when an ambiguity exists it should be construed in their favor. The Court upheld that notion here in a victory for grammar purists everywhere.

How does your toast and milk sound now?

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