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The Courts Education It's funny.  Laugh.

Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute (nytimes.com) 331

Daniel VIctor, writing for The New York Times: A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes: The dreaded -- or totally necessary -- Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks. What ensued in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and in a 29-page court decision handed down on Monday, was an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost a dairy company in Portland, Me., an estimated $10 million. In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy, seeking more than four years' worth of overtime pay that they had been denied (Editor's note: the link could be paywalled; alternate link from a syndicated partner). Maine law requires workers to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carves out some exemptions. [...] The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one, but it was anything but for the truck drivers. Note the lack of Oxford comma -- also known as the serial comma -- in the following state 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. Oakhurst Dairy is arguing that "packing for shipment" and "distribution" are two different items in the list. But that's not how the truck drivers are seeing it. They argue that "packing for shipment or distribution" is one item.
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Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute

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  • missing the point? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:13AM (#54057871)

    Looking past the arguments about commas, does anyone one know *why* there is no overtime pay for these specific jobs? How old is the law in question?

    • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:21AM (#54057953)

      Looking past the arguments about commas, does anyone one know *why* there is no overtime pay for these specific jobs? How old is the law in question?

      I believe the argument is that a lot of the jobs involved with those particular restrictions revolve around seasonal work (fishing season, harvest season, etc). So the jobs entail maybe a month or 2 of heavy hours followed by 10 months of no work at all. Harvest/fishing season work by it's very nature is a very time intensive work when there is work, but most of time there is no work.

  • And you thought statistics was the only thing that could be interpreted "correctly" to argue either side of a debate...

  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:13AM (#54057877)
    have exceptions for overtime pay? Overtime pay exceptions were supposed to be for high paying desk jobs like CEO where it wasn't worth anyone's time/effort to calculate it. Jesus, just repel it entirely already and stop pretending. Or better yet, recognize that any law exempting people from OT will be written from the ground up with abuse in mind and not pass them.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:36AM (#54058077)

      I was thinking the same thing.

      On the surface, I understand why. You can't just leave some milk or fish out in the warehouse just because your shift is done. It has to be moved into a refrigerated area. However, this is not a problem for the hourly worker to resolve. Somewhere the process is broken. Either they are asking too much of the workers or just plain old failing to plan adequately for demand. Either way, they should pay the overtime. Maybe if they had to pay overtime, the added costs would force them to revise the processes involved so that OT is not required.

      I like the old saying, "Lack of planning on your part does not create an emergency on my part." So the workers are due the OT pay or the planners need to eliminate the OT requirement.

      Oh, you should always use the Oxford comma. ;-)

      • by meta-monkey ( 321000 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:54AM (#54058293) Journal

        You can't just leave some milk or fish out in the warehouse just because your shift is done. It has to be moved into a refrigerated area. However, this is not a problem for the hourly worker to resolve. Somewhere the process is broken.

        That system is called "mother nature." These are seasonal jobs, so it's 14+ hours a day for the 3 months or whatever the fish are in season and then nothing for 9 months. If they had to follow the same rules for overtime as a factory where you can just turn off the widget machine at the end of the shift the industry wouldn't exist.

      • You can't just leave some milk or fish out in the warehouse just because your shift is done.

        I'm not going to look up Maine labor regulations, but in California, an employer can compel an employee to work overtime.

        https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/FA... [ca.gov] (see #7).

    • It seems to me like every hourly employee should be eligible for overtime pay. If you are paid on some other basis, then what constitutes overtime and how it is handled should be specified in the contract of employment. That solves the problem of CEOs getting overtime pay, and solves the problem of hourly employees not getting it. A lot of people will want their jobs to shift from a salaried to hourly model, and if their current employer doesn't want to make that happen, hopefully they can find one who can.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      It seems worse than that. Blue collar jobs have a metric assload of harsh rules that regulate everything and make it sound more like a prison sentence than a job.

      But you walk into even the lowest end white collar job, the rules are in some dusty HR handbook that nobody gives a shit about.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:13AM (#54057879)

    I see no ambiguity here. Of course, I also write parsers.

    packing for shipment or distribution of X

      => packing for (shipment or distirbution) of X

    NOT

    => packing for shipment of X, distribution of X

    • You're exactly wrong. Shipment IS part of distribution. Distribution is the act of distributing, not packing. You know, like driving things to the places to which they are distributed.
      • by msauve ( 701917 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @11:37AM (#54058771)
        "Shipment IS part of distribution"

        The law uses both terms, the difference is meaningful or they would be redundant. "Distribution" in law isn't just "driving things to the places to which they are distributed." The term also covers any change of hands - many drug laws prohibit "distribution," to cover exchanges with or without remuneration.

        The law covers agricultural products. Those sold at a farm stand are being distributed (sold), but not shipped (they're sold at the site of origination). Those being trucked from a plant to the same company's warehouse are being shipped, but not distributed. And, packaging may differ for distribution (e.g. retail packaging) and shipping (e.g. case packs, palletizing). So, packaging for (distribution or shipping) is a perfectly logical clause, as they can be completely different things.
      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        So if shipping is part of distribution (we'll call them collectively shipubution for clarity), what would packing for shipubution be? That's correct, a specific step that is not being included in shipubution. So the packing is exempt, the shipubution is not.

        • So if shipping is part of distribution (we'll call them collectively shipubution for clarity), what would packing for shipubution be? That's correct, a specific step that is not being included in shipubution. So the packing is exempt, the shipubution is not.

          What? The entire sentence is providing a list of the activities that are exempt. The don't list the activity of distributing the products as an exemption from the exemptions. Are you even listening to yourself?

          • by sjames ( 1099 )

            So then why didn't it read "... ,packing, shipping or distribution" assuming they didn't use the Oxford comma?

            Of course, the Judge didn't need to prove a particular version of the law in this case, he only needed to rule that there is an ambiguity of some kind. Based on the comments here, I'd say there is.

            The legislature could have removed that ambiguity either through an Oxford comma or by rephrasing the whole thing.

  • by number6x ( 626555 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:14AM (#54057889)

    Efforts to drop the comma originated with newspapers in a time when space on the printed page mattered. word groupings are always clear with it, and may, or may not, be clear without it.

    It should be preserved in formal writing.

    As the sentence is written in the article, the drivers won the case because the written sentence says exactly what they interpret it to say. The dairy company is on the wrong side of the language.

    A comma after the word 'shipment' and before the word 'or' would have made the company the winner.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:31AM (#54058033)

      On the other hand, there's a good argument that the missing comma wasn't an accident.

      According to the Quartz article [qz.com] on this, the drivers argued (correctly, in my view) that all the other items in the list were -ing gerunds, e.g. "storing, marketing, packing, ...", and that therefore "distribution" belongs to the pair of "shipment or distribution", and not to the longer list.

      In other words, had the intent been to exempt that last item, it would have been written "...marketing, packing for shipment or distributing" with or without the comma.

      • Let's work with the inverse. Let's assume the last two are a combined in a pair:

        "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."

        If shipment or distribution were to be considered one item then the sentence is gramatically incorrect and should instead read:

        "The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, or packing for shipment or distr

    • by elrous0 ( 869638 )

      I've always been a fan of the Oxford comma myself, even as an American writer. But every time I use it in my writing, inevitably I get pushback from my boss or editors that this is not correct grammar (it is). It's also a pet-peeve that my editors give me shit every time I start a sentence with a conjunction, which contrary to what your dumbass high school English teacher taught you, is perfectly grammatically acceptable. And my editors' high school English teachers can go fuck themselves.

  • The dairy is correct.

    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.

    If "packing for shipment or distribution" was one item, then there would be another "or" before "packing":

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

    Because that "or" isn't there, the "or" before "distribution" makes "distribution" the final item in the list:

    1. canning
    2. preserving
    3. freezing
    4. drying
    5. marketing
    6. storing
    7. packing for shipment
    8. distribution

    The meaning is plain and the court really needs to go back to elementary English class if they ruled otherwise.

    • by Stormwatch ( 703920 ) <rodrigogirao&hotmail,com> on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:22AM (#54057967) Homepage

      I understand 8 as "packing for distribution".

    • I read it as 'and (packing for shipping or distribution)'. Because there's no oxford comma.

    • I think that's how most people would read it, but if people would just be taught the Oxford comma, things would be much more consistent.

      I know my kids were taught NOT to use the Oxford comma, and were downgraded on it from their middle school teachers when I'd been their editor. That teacher did NOT expect, nor welcome, pushback on such an issue; she'd presented it as "obviously nobody uses that anymore, just like the two spaces after a period thing".

    • by pr0t0 ( 216378 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:52AM (#54058267)

      I don't believe it's that simple. Consider the following example I just found:
      "I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty."

      That sentence could be interpreted either as you love your parents AND Lady Gaga AND Humpty Dumpty. It could also be interpreted as you love your parents, and your parents are named Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty. There is a degree of ambiguity there.

      Now consider this sentence:
      "I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty."

      There is no ambiguity there. Clearly the speaker is listing three separate entities.

      The judge did not rule on the meaning of the sentence. Instead, he ruled on whether the sentence is ambiguous. I think most people would agree the sentence has at least a degree of ambiguity, and that the presence of an Oxford comma would have removed that ambiguity. I had a better education with regard to grammar than students in most of the schools in my area, and even I am not absolutely sure what is technically correct. I think the judge is saying the truck drivers would not have been able to enter into the contract with full knowledge of its repercussions, but for knowledge of a grammatical technicality.

    • by Arnold Reinhold ( 539934 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:54AM (#54058283) Homepage
      The activities "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, or packing" are all activities that take place in a food processing plant. The work in such plants is often seasonal, with long hours for a short period when the harvest comes in, and so exempting such work from overtime pay makes some sense. Truckers, on the other hand typically have work year round so there is no obvious reason to exempt them from the general rule of overtime pay just based on what type of cargo they happen to be carrying. If the legislature's intent was to exempt truckers, it would likely have done so more clearly. Reading such an exemption into a law because of ambiguous punctuation would be improper.
      • I agree. It seems bizarre to determine a truck driver's eligibility for overtime based on what is hauled in his truck. Would any legislature deliberately create a situation in which a truck driver is _sometimes_ eligible for overtime (hauling Atari "E.T." cartridges to the landfill) and sometimes not (hauling frozen chicken to a warehouse)? What if a trucker performs both activities in the same week?

        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.

        I think the lack of punctuation explains what the legislature intended. The number of commas determines t

    • I don't think that your analysis is correct. It's not so simple.

      The first set of items are connected by missing "and" terms, not or terms::
      "The canning, and processing, and preserving, ... and preparing for shipment or delivery of ....". Looked at like this, the "or" stands alone.

    • by Khyber ( 864651 )

      Reality, it's not about the comma. Shipping and distribution are the exact same thing to anyone who's actually worked a logistical position.

      This is a matter of Maine not having the education (along with the truck drivers whom are suing Maine,) this is a matter of idiots not knowing that two different words are one and the exact same thing.

      Since 'packing for shipping or distribution' implies ONE activity (packing) meant to go along with another activity (shipping/distribution) the truck drivers are in the ri

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      The law doesn't really care about grammar though. I think it's likely that the court will find that the person writing the law probably meant "packing for shipment or distribution" because the preceding word is also "or". If they had intended otherwise they would have omitted the first "or".

  • Be Consistent (Score:5, Insightful)

    by in10se ( 472253 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:18AM (#54057927) Homepage

    (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.

    While the second half of the statement uses semicolons instead of commas, they clearly use the oxford comma version of grammar rules. Therefore you must assume the first half of the sentence is also using the same rules, so the truckers are right.

    • Good point. By using the semicolon before "and (3)" the authors of the law didn't forget the comma before "or distribution"; they simply didn't intend to separate packing and distribution. Or, so it's reasonable to argue.
    • But note that the second half uses "and" to separate the items, not "or".

      So, I would argue that the first part is not missing an oxford comma, but instead is missing an "and", so you get:
      "... storing, and packing for shipment or distribution"

  • If the intent was to have "packing for shipment or distribution" as one item it would read "storing, OR packing for shipment or distribution of:"
    It's also not clear to me why any of those should be excluded from overtime.

  • The arguments on both sides of the oxford comma debate are generally around removing ambiguity.
    Certainly, in this case, there is ambiguity, and the addition of the comma would remove that ambiguity immediately.

    I think there are some cases where the addition of the comma can cause ambiguity, but there are an awful lot more cases where it removes it.

    So the case has to revolve around the ambiguity caused by the lack of the comma, and to whom this ambiguity benefits.

    (I'm on the side of the drivers! Oxford Comma

  • by k6mfw ( 1182893 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:26AM (#54057997)
    Reminds me back in the days textbook had an example of missing comma in a legal document. Results was large sums of money and time spent in court. I have to admit there are times when I get scared of using a comma. I will avoid them in this post.
  • Here is footage [youtube.com] of the Maine legislature writing the law in question.
  • That dairy can't be too big. (What in Maine is?)

    Just like Cal Berkeley yanked all 10,000 educational videos over a lawsuit, I wouldn't be surprised if the dairy says, "fuck you" and declares Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

    • Just like Cal Berkeley yanked all 10,000 educational videos over a lawsuit,

      Cal Berkeley yanked those educational videos because they were sued under the ADA to provide close-captioning and such for the hearing impaired.

      Which would have been extremely expensive (think of 10k lectures as ~50 years worth of primetime network TV), to say the least.

      So they looked the situation over, figured out that they'd have to spend tens of millions of dollars to continue offering those free videos (with an ever-present ri

  • by VorpalRodent ( 964940 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:35AM (#54058065)
    I appreciate having a story that is directed explicitly towards the grammatically sensitive among us. It's good that Slashdot tries to cover its bases as far as keeping pedants appropriately stimulated.
  • The second part of the sentence is written as a list, with a colon and semi-colons. To be very precise, the first part should have been a list, too. Clunky English, but would be accurate way to state the legal rule.
  • Given that this is a tech site, I think a lot of us would recognize the ambiguity in this sentence as a problem with design of the language. In this case, it is the way legal documents are written. As an earlier comment pointed out, Maine's own legislative manual says not to use the Oxford comma.

    The solution to this ambiguity is to introduce other language constructs into the so called "legalease". This really should be analysed and corrected for future laws.

    One suggestion is that they could introduce bu

    • by green1 ( 322787 )

      And that's exactly how every law I've read around here looks. usually in a case like this, the sentence in the law would simply refer you to an appendix with a list of excluded tasks/professions, and that appendix would be a bulleted or numbered list.

  • Politicians suck at writing clear, concise sentences.

  • by The Evil Atheist ( 2484676 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @10:50AM (#54058243) Homepage
    Just mandate that laws are written in an executable language, like Python or Scheme, and then it must go through rigorous testing.
    • I will often throw brackets into sentences to make things clearer. That would absolutely have resolved the issue in TFA.

      • I do the same thing with parenthesis. I would write a 4 sentence comment on a site, and it may have as many as 6 sets of parenthesis.

        • Bracket is a generic term that includes the more specific term 'parenthesis'. And braces and chevrons (though I've never used chevrons and didn't even know that was an option until I looked it up just now).

          Of course, it ALSO means 'square bracket' if you're American and 'parenthesis' if you're not, so perhaps I should have been more specific as a non-American on what is likely an American-dominated site.

  • ... If I understand this correctly this means is that grammar and spelling Nazis actually serve a purpose other than to annoy the hell rest of us? Until now I had ranked them somewhere between hairdressers and telephone sanitisers and on the usefulness scale. Since I'll be travelling on space Arkship C with the workers to New Earth, to escape the Orange Menace that threatens to destroy Old Earth, and since I'm in charge of passenger scheduling, think I'll move the grammar Nazis from space Arkship B which is
  • A or B or C or D is the same as A or B or (C or D)

    The whole list is a disjunction, and either the last item is (X or Y), a disjunction of two items, or X or Y are elements of the list.

    Unless they are trying to argue that "A and B and (C or D)" is meant - given context, that is insane.

    • It's not insane. Look at the second list: the items are joined by "and" not "or". This is English, not Boolean logic.
  • Who gives a f*...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

  • Are the terms defined?

    Is there a distinction between "packing" and "distribution" of the 3 classes of items?

    If they mean the same thing, then you couldn't argue that it means "packing for shipment or packing for distribution of: ..."

    In that case, when you accept that the 2 actions are equivalent, i.e. A === B, you'd be saying "packing for A or packing for A", which is clearly redundant.

  • (1) Just because of all this debate, it is "reasonable" to believe that there is ambiguity in the contract.
    (2) If there is ambiguity in the contract, the judgement is always for the plaintiff.

    Done.

  • by Gogogoch ( 663730 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @11:43AM (#54058829)

    Since there is ambiguity, look at the language used to form the list:

    The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, stoing, packing for shipment or distribution of

    This is a list of verb forms (present participles) and so "shipment or distribution" (nouns) is a qualifier for "packing" and not additions to the list themselves. So from the context, or pattern, the "or" binds more tightly with the modifiers and not with the list. If the list was intended to include "distributing" or "shipping" it would have added the words in that form.

  • >"The dreaded -- or totally necessary -- Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks"

    Properly called the "serial comma."

    Why is the serial comma ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] ) dreaded? This is what I was taught as proper writing in a very good school system in the 80's. It is also what I use today. To me it seems logical, functional, lessens ambiguity, and makes common sense. (Note the use of it in that last sentence).

  • by Hussman32 ( 751772 ) on Friday March 17, 2017 @02:19PM (#54060309)

    I've always used the Oxford comma ever since I read this sentence:

    "I'd like to thank my parents, God and Ayn Rand."

    Much different meaning than

    "I'd like to thank my parents, God, and Ayn Rand."

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