Most people will by now have seen the story about a debated Oxford comma that won a group of Maine delivery drivers the right to overtime payments. (An Oxford or serial comma is the one used before the words “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things. Some people argue that it is an entirely unnecessary affectation, and I will agree that sometimes it can be. In other cases, as here, it is a very useful way to avoid ambiguity.)
The story, in case you are one of the few people not to have seen it, relates to a sentence in the drivers’ contract which states that overtime payment will not be due to those involved in
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 company employing the drivers argues that “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were clearly meant to be two separate activities, meaning that the delivery drivers are subject to the exemption from overtime payments. The drivers contrarily argued that the lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution” implied that the clause was describing the single activity of “packing”. The judge who heard the case agreed with the drivers and, for what it’s worth*, I agree with the judgment.
Q: What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?
A: A comma is a pause at the end of a clause, while a cat has claws at the end of its paws.
If this case proves one thing, it is that punctuation isn’t just something for grammar nerds (unlike that joke). The purpose of punctuation, and indeed of most grammatical rules, is to help readers make sense of what has been written. If the punctuation doesn’t do that – and the fact that this case ended up in court is a pretty clear indication that it doesn’t do so here – then it’s incorrect.
With that said, I’m off to spend the rest of my Saturday afternoon with some of my favourite things: reading, browsing the internet, cooking dinner, and the cat.
The Oxford comma: because a cat is for life, not just for dinner.