Language

Good Punctuation Can Sure Save A Lot of Money

Punctuation matters.

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"Punctuation Saves Lives," goes the tagline to a meme you might have seen. Above it appear two sentences:

"Let's eat Grandma!"

"Let's eat, Grandma!"

Droll, very droll. But commas are no laughing matter to the Maine company Oakhurst Dairy or to the workers who sued it for unpaid overtime. Ten million dollars might now change hands because of a simple comma—or rather the lack of one.

The case turned on what is known as the serial, or Oxford, comma—the comma that (sometimes) precedes the last item in a series, as in: "Ted bought a house, a car, and a boat."

Some people hold that such a sentence needs two commas: one after "house" and one after "car." The second comma is the Oxford comma. But others contend the sentence should have only one comma (after "house") and that a second comma would be superfluous.

For the remainder of the column, these two groups shall be referred to as (1) Oxford comma proponents and (2) people who should burn in hell.

To see why, consider this tweet from writer Justin Hendrix: "When @LouiseMensch reported on the FISA tap, she included details that implicated Putin's own daughters, Carter Page and Paul Manafort."

Former Trump aide Paul Manafort is alleged to have links to Vladimir Putin. But this is the first time anyone has ever suggested he and Trump adviser Carter Page are Putin's daughters. An Oxford comma would have made it clear that the details implicated (a) Putin's daughters, (b) Page, and (c) Manafort.

A New York Times reporter recently provided another (fictitious) example of the confusion that can arise when the Oxford comma is omitted: "I'd like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope." That would make for quite a scandal.

Unfortunately, many news organizations have decided to omit the Oxford comma, although some of them grudgingly permit it in cases where confusion might arise. But that only creates more confusion: First because it looks inconsistent, and second because there is bound to be confusion about whether certain cases might cause confusion.

Confusion certainly arose in the Oakhurst Dairy case. (Oops. Make that "the case involving Oakhurst Dairy," since just about every grocery store in the country has a dairy case.)

According to Maine law, overtime rules do not apply to:

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.

This can mean one of two things:

(a) Overtime rules do not apply to packing carried out for the purpose of shipping or distribution.

(b) Overtime rules do not apply either to packing carried out for the purpose of shipping, or to distribution.

If you drive a truck that delivers perishable dairy products, this distinction makes a big difference, because while you do the distribution, you don't do the packing. So your legal claim to overtime pay hangs on exactly what the legislature intended.

Unfortunately, the legislative intent is hard to discern from the text of the statute, because the Maine legislature abjures the Oxford comma. If the legislature used the Oxford comma—and used it consistently, not inconsistently the way many news outlets do—then its meaning would be plain. A comma would prove whether the lawmakers meant "packing for shipment or distribution" or "packing for shipment, or distribution."

A lower court ruled in favor of the company. An appeals court reversed that decision and found in favor of the drivers because the lack of a comma rendered the sentence unclear.

You might think that qualifies as the most expensive comma question ever, but it doesn't. That honor belongs to an errant comma inserted in an 1872 tariff act. Because of the comma's placement, fruit importers successfully argued that fruit was exempt from U.S. tariffs, and American taxpayers had to cough up $2 million, which comes to roughly $40 million in today's dollars.

So perhaps good punctuation does not literally save lives. But it can sure save a lot of money.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch

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  1. No countersuit over the definition of inclusive vs. exclusive or?

    Did they run out of lawyers, internet grammar Nazis, or both?

  2. This article is outdated. The legislature clarified the statute:

    A well regulated overtime, being necessary to maintaining a profit margin, the right of the people to keep and bear a 40-hour work week, shall not be infringed.

  3. To see why, consider this tweet from writer Justin Hendrix: “When @LouiseMensch reported on the FISA tap, she included details that implicated Putin’s own daughters, Carter Page and Paul Manafort.”

    Fuck, you,Hinkle.
    There’s, your, damn, extra, comma.

    If you are so concerned about some idiot getting confussssssed over a missing comma, use a fucking colon instead of the Oxford blasphemy.

    To see why, consider this tweet from writer Justin Hendrix: “When @LouiseMensch reported on the FISA tap, she included details that implicated Putin’s own daughters: Carter Page and Paul Manafort.”

    Now there is no doubt of Manafort’s provenance.

    /Proudly burning in Hell

  4. Squirrelz ate my first post. So shorter version. “A lower court ruled in favor of the company. An appeals court reversed that decision and found in favor of the drivers because the lack of a comma rendered the sentence unclear.”

    How the hell is it that they conclude that the sentence was unclear therefore someone (Oakhurst) should be compelled to do something (pay OT)? How can the default be anything other than: because the text is unclear, the drivers were unable to prove that the law requires Oakhurst to pay them OT and therefore, Oakhurst has no requirement to pay OT?

    1. If you read the opinion, the Court pointed out that under the labor laws of the State of Maine, ambiguities are to be interpreted in favor of the employee rather than the employer.

      A Barton Hinkle would think punctuation matters, I suppose. Harry’s Truman would as well. I don’t know about the strippers, John F. Kennedy and Joseph Stalin.

  5. Use only what punctuation is necessary to ensure your meaning is clear and no more. That seems like the better rule. Screw this Oxford comma nonsense. Punctuation is there to clarify meaning (and sometimes expression). So use an extra comma if it resolves some ambiguity. It doesn’t need to be an absolute rule.

    Seriously, this shit is still broken? What the fuck did you spend my $100 on, assholes?

  6. It ought to be clear even to a drooling Oxford-jihadi that if “packing for shipment or distribution” were intended as one thing, the last item in the set, there should be an “or” before it. There isn’t; therefore “distribution” is the entire last item.

    1. Nailed it. Thank you sir. Here is your “Grammar Nazi” certificate.

  7. The original court that found against the truck drivers, the idiot who wrote that story and most of you dopey commenters don’t know your asses from holes in the ground about grammar or sentence analysis, also known as diagramming.

    The sentence as constructed by the legislature was correct to begin with, made perfect sense and DID NOT exclude truck drivers from overtime pay. Here’s why:

    “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:”

    “…shipment or distribution…” are compound objects of the preposition “for,” which modifies the gerund “packing.”

    “packing for shipment or distribution of” is a COMPLETE grammatical unit and as such is simply the final element in the series delineating jobs that don’t pay overtime.

    None of it says anything whatsoever about truck drivers or any exclusion of truck drivers from payment for overtime.

    The entire “Oxford comma” debate is nonsense fostered by illiterates. Whether to put a comma before the final element of a series depends entirely on the meaning of the sentence and nothing else.

    1. Nothing that ends with ‘of’ is a COMPLETE grammatical unit.

  8. “For the remainder of the column, these two groups shall be referred to as (1) Oxford comma proponents and (2) people who should burn in hell.”

    Not very libertarian of you, Hinkle. Might there not be a third way?

    *Always* using the Oxford comma, and *never* using the Oxford comma both leave room for ambiguity, depending on the situation of course in can have their cake and eat it too, as long as re-wording or using different punctuation (parentheses, semicolons, etc) is required.

    OT, the Oxford comma is also known Harvard comma. I find it amusing that an (incorrect, IMO) rule about a comma is one of the few things such prestigious universities can agree on. Well, that and “climate change” (sigh).

    1. How could including the comma ever cause confusion? I say use it, it can certainly avoid confusion, as the examples here show, and you might as well be consistent. But why is it called an “Oxford comma”, does Cambridge recommend it not be used?

  9. BTW, the lawyers for the company knew damn well what the wording meant, but chose to take advantage of the general lack of grammatical understanding shown even by justices now-a-days to attempt to advance their client’s position and pocketbook (and their own pay, incidentally)

    Can you blame them?

  10. Panda: eats, shoots and leaves.

  11. The ambiguity from the lack of an Oxford comma is resolved by the form of the word (“distribution”) used. Words in a sequential list should have similar form. What do all these words have in common — canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing — that this one does not — distribution? GERUNDS.

    If the legislature had used the gerund form “distributing,” it should have also used the Oxford comma, and distributing would have been the last action in a like list. Using “distribution” without an Oxford comma makes it clear that “packing for shipment or distribution” is a cohesive phrase/concept, with “packing” being the last action in a like list.

    Obviously, the appellate judges are not as big grammar nerds as I am.

    1. Distribution is a separate category if the intent of the clause is to exempt an industry that COMBINES all these functions into a single job description. Farmers markets, roadside stands, once-weekly doorstep delivery of dairy/veggies/CSA, wharfside lobster sales, truck farms. All of those outlets have distribution as an end-of-day or when-the-truck-is-full or once-a-week part of a bigger salaried job. Those all cease to exist now if ‘distribution’ now has to be a stand-alone job function uniquely subject to overtime. You can’t mix exempt and non-exempt job functions in the same work week because otherwise you can’t calculate overtime.

      In this specific case, three employees brought the lawsuit. In theory, those may well be employees who WERE pretty much full-time drivers (tractor-trailer type dairy trucks). 75 (out of the 200 total employees) are sharing the award. The notion that nearly half of their total workforce is fulltime drivers and distributors is insane. The company most likely paid a salary that covers erratic work schedules – and now they have to pretend that was actually an hourly job and pay overtime on top. Those employees now have to be fired so the jobs can be converted to hourly. The business needs to rethink its different marketing outlets from scratch and figure out how to configure/staff/manage its distribution function separately. This isn’t just about grammar.

    2. Gerunds are nouns. Distribution is a noun. I see no problem mixing the two types of nouns in a list.

    3. Gerunds are nouns. Distribution is a noun. I see no problem mixing the two types of nouns in a list.

  12. Distribution is a separate category if the intent of the clause is to exempt an industry that COMBINES all these functions into a single job description. Farmers markets, roadside stands, once-weekly doorstep delivery of dairy/veggies/CSA, wharfside lobster sales, truck farms. All of those outlets have distribution as an end-of-day or when-the-truck-is-full or once-a-week part of a bigger salaried job. Those all cease to exist now if ‘distribution’ now has to be a stand-alone job function uniquely subject to overtime. You can’t mix exempt and non-exempt job functions in the same work week because otherwise you can’t calculate overtime.

    In this specific case, three employees brought the lawsuit. In theory, those may well be employees who WERE pretty much full-time drivers (tractor-trailer type dairy trucks). 75 (out of the 200 total employees) are sharing the award. The notion that nearly half of their total workforce is fulltime drivers and distributors is insane. The company most likely paid a salary that covers erratic work schedules – and now they have to pretend that was actually an hourly job and pay overtime on top. Those employees now have to be fired so the jobs can be converted to hourly. The business needs to rethink its different marketing outlets from scratch and figure out how to configure/staff/manage its distribution function separately.

  13. “Legislative intent” is a very bad thing to get caught up in. They aren’t all of one mind, and whatever was in their mind, that may or may not be what the law passed is. If the legislature wrote an incoherent law, the proper action is not to play mind-reader or telepath.

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