Lack of comma sense ignites debate after ruling in $10M suit

PORTLAND, Maine — It all came down to a missing comma, and not just any one. And it’s reignited a longstanding debate over whether the punctuation is necessary.

A federal appeals court decided this week to keep alive a lawsuit by dairy drivers seeking more than $10 million in an overtime pay dispute.

It concerned Maine’s overtime law, which doesn’t apply to the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” foods.

There’s no Oxford, or serial, comma in the “packing for shipment or distribution” part. The drivers said the words referred to the single activity of packing, which the drivers don’t do. The defendant, Oakhurst Dairy, said the words referenced two different activities and drivers fall within the exemption.

Circuit Judge David Barron wrote: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

The court sided with the drivers.

“Comma sense ain’t so common,” Jeffrey Neil Young, an attorney for the drivers, said.

David Webbert, another attorney for the drivers, said the “fight for overtime rights has been vindicated” by what he called a “landmark” ruling made possible by an ambiguous exemption and a lack of a punctuation mark.

“Our argument was that it was a train wreck of a sentence,” Webbert said. “The tie goes to the workers.”

Oakhurst representatives said they plan to keep fighting the suit and declined to comment on the comma kerfuffle. A trial could follow. The company is well known in Maine for its line of milks, creamers and other dairy products.

Since the ruling, the internet has become a battlefield for defense — and derision — of the comma. News website Vox tweeted that the “Oxford comma is the world’s most controversial punctuation mark.”

Indeed, use of the Oxford comma has divided people for years. FiveThirtyEight and SurveyMonkey Audience polled more than 1,000 people about it in 2014 and found that more than half favored the extra comma.

The Associated Press Stylebook advises against the use of the Oxford comma, except when it’s needed for clarity. In this case, someone following AP’s guidance would include a comma if the packing and distribution were intended to be separate activities.

Other authorities are more enthusiastic about the serial comma — notably Oxford University Press, from which the mark draws its popular name. The Oxford style guide, published as New Hart’s Rules, states that it is Oxford style “to retain or impose this last comma consistently.”

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