Ah grammar, some people love it, some hate it and others just don’t see the point in getting het up about it. For one group of US delivery drivers, however, the humble comma just helped win a fight for overtime pay!
The unlikely hero of the tale is a finicky device called an Oxford comma, a comma sometimes used before the final “and” in lists. For example:
- I love my parents, the Queen and Snoop Dogg (no oxford comma); and
- I love my parents, the Queen, and Snoop Dogg (with oxford comma).
In the first sentence, the Queen and Snoop Dogg might be my parents. In the second sentence, the Oxford comma helps the reader understand that I am not the product of an unlikely union, but that I have a penchant for royalty and US rap. The Oxford comma tends to be used more commonly in the US, but has a widespread fan base in the UK. Crucially for our purposes, however, there is no uniform or consistent rule about its use.
So far, so good for grammar nazis. “But why does this matter?”, I hear you ask, finger hovering over the “delete” button. Well, in this case, it mattered a great deal. Overtime laws in the US state of Maine set out that workers cannot be paid overtime for the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” various items.
The drivers in this case argued that the lack of a comma after “shipment” meant that the final six words only referred to one activity; packing, whether that be for shipment or distribution. Since their work was to only to deliver and to do any of the other activities, they qualified for overtime. The employer argued that distribution was a separate listed activity and was therefore excluded from overtime.
The judge found that the wording was ambiguous because of the lack of our friend, the Oxford comma. As a result, the court interpreted the wording in favour of the drivers who, aside from being a little richer, are now presumably expert grammarians.
So, a tale of victory for grammar pedants everywhere! But it’s also a tale of caution for those drafting contracts or policies on behalf of their organisation; say what you mean and mean what you say!