Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Vindication, Justification, and Justice for the Oxford Comma

Take that Associated Press Stylebook!

The Oxford comma just proved its worth.

The Oxford comma, or serial comma, refers to the last comma before a conjunction in a series of three or more.  For example, in the sentence "I like apples, bananas, and oranges," the comma before "and oranges" is the Oxford comma.

In recent years, usage has fallen somewhat out of favor, with the AP Style guide being one major proponent of its removal.  This decision has been the subject of much debate, with the Chicago Manual of Style and the Oxford University Style Guide still recommending it (hence the name).

I have always been in favor of the Oxford comma.  They will pry it from my cold, dead, and lifeless hands.  It's necessary to avoid confusion.  For instance, think of the sentence "I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Robert Downey, Jr."  Does this sentence mean the person loves their parents and also loves Lady Gaga and Robert Downey, Jr., or does it mean that the person's parents are Lady Gaga and Robert Downey, Jr.?  The Oxford comma would clear all confusion.

And it's this type of confusion that is potentially going to cost Oakhurst Dairy an estimated $10 million.  The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has handed down an opinion in O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901 (1st Cir. 2017), that focuses on the ambiguity found from the lack of an Oxford comma in the states overtime exemptions.

Maine's overtime law provides an exemption for the "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods."  With the way the statute is constructed, does it exempt the packing for shipment and distribution as one category or the packing and distribution of the food categories as two separate exemptions?  Further, because of this question, is only distribution limited to agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods?  Or are all the actions for exemption limited to the three categories listed?

The case centered on delivery drivers who distributed the perishable foods but did not pack them.  Whether the drivers were subject to the law denying them thousands of dollars a year in overtime pay depends entirely on how the sentence is read.  Had a comma been placed after shipment there would be no doubt, but with the absence of a comma, the Court of Appeals sided with the drivers, finding enough uncertainty in the statutory construction to rule in their favor, making them potentially eligible for overtime.

According to the judge, "Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not."

Put simply, for the want of a comma we have a case and a ruling.

This isn't the first case that has centered on the use of a comma.  Nor will it be the last until we can get the AP Stylebook to reinstate the Oxford comma.

Now, if I could just get a legal decision to settle the debate on and continue to require two spaces after a period.  

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