The Oxford comma is probably the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language: academics root for it, journalists are torn over it, and the general public has some strong feelings about it.
And recently, Oakhurst Dairy settled a dispute for $5 million because a policy lacked an Oxford comma.
Me: Do you use the Oxford comma?
Date: The what?
Me: *Shrugs, eats, and leaves.
— Mariah Driver (@Mariah__Driver) February 4, 2018
What’s the Oxford comma? It’s also called the “serial comma” and it’s the comma used in a list of three or more before the words “and” or “or.” If you’re listing the influential people in your life, you could say that you love your parents, Jesus, and Oprah. Without the Oxford comma, you’d have this:
The example I give my students when I discuss the importance of the Oxford comma. Which is probably way too often. Glad to see so many Oxford commas in their final papers!!! #winning 🤷🏼♀️ pic.twitter.com/DFZRYtJtww
— Megan Denton Ray 🍋 (@MeganDentonRay) December 18, 2017
It turns out the Oxford comma is worth more than just its academic weight. According to court documents filed Thursday, the lack of the punctuation mark cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million the Associated Press reports.
Last March, dairy drivers in Maine won an overtime labor case over the lack of Oxford comma in Maine’s labor laws. The three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy in 2014, claiming they should have been paid for four years’ worth of overtime labor.
According to Maine’s labor laws, anyone who works more than 40 hours a week is entitled to time-and-a-half. There were, however, exemptions:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish product; and
“Distribution” is the key word here. Without the Oxford comma, “packing for shipment or distribution” is one activity that’s exempt from time-and-a-half pay.
United States Court of Appeals
For the First Circuit, No. 16-1901 (March 13, 2017), Judge Barron:
The Oxford Comma is important. pic.twitter.com/jhdqfbdfvN
— Oxford Comma (@IAmOxfordComma) March 14, 2017
As the circuit judge overseeing this case ruled, the lack of a comma caused confusion over whether “distribution” itself was exempt from overtime pay.
Maine’s labor laws were updated last June to the following:
The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:
Meat and fish products; and
All of the commas — Oxford or not — have been replaced with semicolons, and “distributing” remains unquestionably exempt from overtime pay.