The five million dollar comma

In 2017, because of a missing comma, a Maine company had to pay out five million dollars in a legal settlement.

GJo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Okay, I’m just going to start with this: I like the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma. It’s the comma that comes before the final item in a list:

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Many people use the serial comma all the time. Many people don’t use it consistently, and many style guides don’t mandate it. If you can believe it, it’s a big point of contention!

The serial comma is more common in academic circles; the absence or variable use is more common in journalism. The debate is usually undertaken only by the rare people who care about such things: editors and grammarians mostly. It’s unusual, to say the least, for it to become the basis of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. And yet, this decade, that’s exactly what happened.

Oakhurst Dairy, a company in Maine, USA, had a dispute with their drivers. The question was whether the drivers were entitled to overtime pay. The appropriate law said that the following activities were not entitled to such pay:

canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution [of some goods]

So, here’s the question: is the last item “packing for shipment or distribution” or is the last item “distribution”? Without a serial comma, it’s unclear. And because it was unclear, the company ended up settling the lawsuit for five million dollars because of the risk that the court would rule in favour of the drivers’ interpretation of the statue.

There you go children: punctuation matters.

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