"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