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A Quick Reminder on the Importance of the Oxford Comma, From the First Circuit

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Where do you stand on the Oxford comma? If you're like a sizable minority of Americans, you could do without it. But if you're an intelligent, thoughtful person who cares about your writing, you make sure you've got an Oxford comma in place when needed. That's because the Oxford comma can be essential to creating clear writing.

Don't believe me? Then you've yet to read O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, yesterday's First Circuit decision that rested entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma.

Why the Oxford Comma?

Before we dive into the First Circuit's opinion, though, some basics. If there's any confusion, the Oxford comma (or as the nationalists in the First Circuit call it, the serial comma) is the comma you use before a conjunction in a list of three or more. The Oxford comma makes it clear that the final items are separate parts of a list, rather than a final phrase.

Skip an Oxford comma and some hilarious ambiguities can occur. The famous example is the book dedication "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." Others include Oxford comma-less mix-ups include Sky News' outing of Obama and Castro when it listed its top stories as "World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set."

The First Comes Out for the Oxford Comma

Now to the First Circuit, where the lack of an Oxford comma wasn't quite as humorous. The case arose after dairy delivery drivers in Maine demanded overtime pay. Like everyone else, Maine requires employers to pay overtime. But the state law exempts many workers in the food and agriculture industry. The state law specifically states that the wage and hour laws do not apply to "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution".

See the problem? The drivers argued that they were not exempt from the overtime laws, since "packing for shipment or distribution" encompassed packing for shipment and packing for distribution. The actual distribution wasn't exempted. The dairy argued differently, saying that packing and distribution were separate and both exempt.

"For want of a comma, we have this case," the First Circuit wrote. Without the "clarifying virtues of serial commas," the court was forced to juggle each party's alternative interpretations. Of course, each contradictory reading was backed by a convenient canon of construction -- but none settled the ambiguity.

Unable to read an unambiguous meaning in to the statute, a meaning an Oxford comma would have supplied, the court defaulted to a liberal construction "to further the beneficent purposes" of the wage and hour laws. The delivery drivers were entitled to their pay and we all got an important reminder about the virtues of the Oxford comma.

Now if only we could get the Ninth Circuit to tell us how many spaces go after a period ...

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