Thursday, March 16, 2017

For want of an Oxford comma

Vampire Weekend once asked, “Who gives a f__k about an Oxford comma?” The answer, apparently, is the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, a whole lot.

In O’Connor v. Oakhurt Dairy [pdf], that court reversed the dismissal of an overtime lawsuit based on the absence of a Oxford comma in a list of activities that qualify for a certain exemption under Maine’s wage-and-hour law.

For the uninitiated, the Oxford comma is the punctuation that separates the penultimate item from the last in a list of three of more. It is not grammatically required, but stylistically recommended by most. Some style guides require its use (Chicago, Oxford, and the U.S. Government printing office), while others do not (AP and the Canadian Press).

In O’Connor, the court concluded that its absence was material to whether a delivery driver qualified for an overtime exemption.

The law in question exempts from overtime employees whose work involves the handling of expressly enumerated food products:
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 mere lack of an Oxford comma preceding “or distribution” was the key issue in the case. The court concluded that the omission rendered the exemption ambiguous (are shipping and distribution mutually exclusive, as the employer argued, or mutually required, as the employee argued), and sent the case back to the district court for trial.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I don’t employ food handlers in Maine; why should I care about this case?” The answer is clarity in drafting. You may not care about this exemption in Maine’s overtime law, but you do, for example, care about how employees read and interpret your employment policies. And, if the inclusion of a simple comma makes even one policy that much more clear, then why not use it across the board?

“Who gives a f__k about the Oxford comma?” I do, and you should, too.

[Hat tip: Eric Meyer’s Employer Handbook Blog]