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Dhaka Tribune

Oxford comma wins US lawsuit on overtime pay

Update : 18 Mar 2017, 04:20 PM

In the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, a 29-page court decision was handed down on Monday, which was nothing short of a high-stakes grammar pedantry that cost a dairy company in Portland, Maine, an estimated $10 million as reported by the New York Times.

In 2014, three truck drivers had sued Oakhurst Dairy in demand for more than four years’ worth of overtime pay that they had been denied.

According to Maine law, workers are to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carves out some exemptions.

Here is a gentle punctuation reminder before we proceed further: in a list of three or more items, for example “beans, potatoes and rice”, while some people would put a comma after potatoes, and some would not.

Although a debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one, this time it was all for the truck drivers.

Note the lack of Oxford comma, or serial comma in the following Maine law, which says overtime rules do not apply to:

“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 this case, the delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but they do not pack the boxes themselves. So, whether or not the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence read.

If there were a comma after “shipment” it would have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. However, the appeals court on Monday sided with the drivers and declared the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favour.

In other words: Oxford comma saved the day for the delivery drivers.

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