How an Oxford comma cost one business millions

Traditionally favoured by Oxford University Press, the Oxford comma is considered to be one of the most controversial parts of grammar in the English language. It appears before the coordinating conjunction (usually ‘and’ or ‘or’) at the end of a list and signals that the last word on the list is distinct from the one preceding the coordinator (e.g. ‘When I went to London I saw my sisters, Rihanna, and Madonna’).

Yet conventional grammar rules do not hold with the Oxford comma and consider that in a simple list the coordinating conjunction is enough to signal its end (e.g. ‘When I went to London I saw my sisters, Rihanna and Madonna’). Of course, as Lynne Truss’ bestselling book ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ reminds us, the absence of an Oxford comma can open up some ambiguity about what a phrase means (e.g. when I went to London, did I see my sisters and two other people? Or did I see Rihanna and Madonna, who are my sisters?).

This ambiguity turned into a fairly expensive oversight for the State of Maine’s Oakhurst Dairy in 2017. Maine’s overtime statute states that it exempts the payment of overtime for the:

‘canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution’

of certain products. The court had to decide whether this exemption included distributing the products or not. Drivers working for the dairy argued that the absence of a comma after ‘shipment’ meant that the exemption was for preparing goods for distribution, but not for actually distributing them. The dairy argued that the list included distribution in the exemption. Grammar experts battled it out, and the courts ultimately found in favour of the drivers, who received $5m in damages.

If you want to make sure that you don’t fall into similar traps in your professional writing, brush up on your grammar skills with our Freelance Writing for Businesses Diploma Course.

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