COMMA COURTESY

A lawsuit over the absence of an Oxford comma was settled for $5 million

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

Last year’s great comma debate, in which millions of dollars hinged on a missing piece of punctuation, has been resolved.

In a 2014 case that should have been called Nitpickers v. Nitpickers, a group of delivery-truck drivers sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for unpaid overtime and lost wages. They lost, but appealed in March 2017. A court of appeals sided with the drivers, and on Thursday, the company settled with the drivers for $5 million.

The case came down to a set of clauses in Maine’s overtime laws—and to the ever contentious Oxford (or serial) comma, an optional piece of punctuation used just before the coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” or “or”) in a list of three or more things. Its proponents say it provides clarity, while its detractors argue it’s redundant.

In the state provisions that list which activities did not qualify for overtime, there is no comma between “shipment” and “or.”

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.

In the drivers’ view, that meant the entire clause “packing for shipment or distribution of…” was one activity, not two separate ones, exempt from overtime. They argued that since they had distributed, but not packed, the products, they were owed overtime wages. The appeals court agreed, ruling the passage ambiguous.

As the New York Times (paywall) reports, the Maine overtime provision has since been cleared up. A newly zealous use of punctuation now very clearly renders “packing” and “distributing” as separate activities exempt from overtime:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

Ambiguous punctuation has long caused problems big enough to land people in court. In 1846, seven different judges in New York came back with five different ideas about how to interpret a particularly vexing set of commas in a man’s will.


Read next: The common grammar mistakes in wills that have landed families in court

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