Court settles debate that's divided grammar nerds for decades

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Court settles debate that's divided grammar nerds for decades

It all came down to a missing comma, and not just any one.

The state law notes that overtime rules do not apply to "t$3 he canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution" of meat and fish produce, agricultural goods, and perishable goods.

See, all of this could be solved if there were an Oxford comma, clearly separating "packing for shipment" and "distribution" as separate things! Court documents say that the drivers distribute perishable food, but they do not pack it.

"If the drivers engage only in distribution and not in any of the standalone activities that Exemption F covers. the drivers fall outside of Exemption F's scope and thus within the protection of the ME overtime law".

If there's one thing that USA appeals judge David J. Barron is sure of, it's this: "For want of a comma, we have this case".

A social media frenzy about commas has erupted since.

Despite the fact that Maine's own legislative style guide discourages use of the serial comma, writes Ha, "the appeals court argues-and the style guide shows-[that] clarity is of the utmost importance when a list is ambiguous".

Without the Oxford comma (comma after Donald Trump), the sentence could suggest that the names of the parents were Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

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Someone has finally answered the rhetorical Vampire Weekend question of "who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?": dairy truck drivers.

They ruled that that the contract referred to packing and distribution as separate tasks as they were not separated by a comma.

In the case of the Oakhurst Dairy lawsuit, Maine's labor laws require employers to pay overtime rates for anything beyond the standard 40 hours per week. The statistics blog 538 asked more than one thousand Americans whether the sentence "It's important for a person to be honest, kind and loyal", was grammatically preferable to "It's important for a person to be honest, kind, and loyal", and found that 57 percent liked the latter, comma-heavy version.

"Commas are probably the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language", it laments.

The comma drama has raised eyebrows-and not just in Maine.

What ensued in the 1st United States Circuit Court of Appeals, and in a 29-page court decision handed down early this week, was an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost a dairy company in Portland, Maine, an estimated $US10 million ($13 million). Rather, the judges merely found that the lack of a comma led created ambiguity, and ME laws require that ambiguities be "construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial objective".

The case now will proceed either to settlement talks - ultimately, this week's decision could benefit upward of 125 drivers - or additional court proceedings to, as Webbert put it, "add up the money". One missed comma and you simply can't get there from here.

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