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Missing Oxford comma changes court ruling

A State law's confusing grammar may win 75 drivers $10 million in overtime pay. (Source: Pixabay) A State law's confusing grammar may win 75 drivers $10 million in overtime pay. (Source: Pixabay)

(RNN) – Majoring in English may not come with promising career prospects, but that doesn’t mean having good grammar can’t save a little cash.

In one of the nerdiest cases in history, an appeals court in Maine ruled that a group of 75 dairy drivers were owed $10 million in overtime pay because of a missing Oxford comma.

“For want of a comma, we have this case,” Judge David Barron wrote in his decision. “… As it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.”

The dispute centers on a state law that says certain activities do not qualify for overtime pay.

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution” is the distinction. A serial comma, or Oxford comma, is used before the penultimate item in a list to add clarity. The drivers contend that "packing for shipment or distribution" is one exempt item, not two separate items. Because they only work in distribution, they say they're entitled to overtime pay.

The case is another battle in the longstanding war between English grammarians.

For example, the sentence “I love my friends, John and Mary” is a little unclear without the serial comma. Are John and Mary the names of the writer’s friends? Or does the writer mean to say he or she loves three separate entities?

To be fair, the Oxford comma can also overcomplicate poorly written sentences. Take the sentence “I met with John, the lawyer, and Simon.” It’s unclear if John is a lawyer or if the lawyer is a third item in the list.

The 75 drivers probably don’t care about any of that nerdy stuff. They just want a big check, and they’re one step closer to getting one. 

The appeals court decision overturned an earlier district court decision. According to the Bangor Daily News, the court case will likely go on before a final decision is made.

But this early ruling is one small step for the drivers, and one giant leap for Oxford comma enthusiast everywhere.

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