Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed

 



Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
The Courts Businesses The Almighty Buck

Maine Dairy Company Settles Lawsuit Over Oxford Comma (bostonmagazine.com) 168

Daniel Victor reports via The New York Times: Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers (Warning: source may be paywalled; alternative source), according to court documents filed on Thursday. The relatively small-scale dispute gained international notoriety last year when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet. But the resolution means there will be no ruling from the land's highest courts on whether the Oxford comma -- the often-skipped second comma in a series like "A, B, and C" -- is an unnecessary nuisance or a sacred defender of clarity, as its fans and detractors endlessly debate.

The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they said was four years' worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carved out exemptions for: The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: agricultural produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods. What followed the last comma in the first sentence was the crux of the matter: "packing for shipment or distribution of." The court ruled that it was not clear whether the law exempted the distribution of the three categories that followed, or if it exempted packing for the shipment or distribution of them. Had there been a comma after "shipment," the meaning would have been clear.

Maine Dairy Company Settles Lawsuit Over Oxford Comma

Comments Filter:
  • Oh come on! (Score:5, Funny)

    by dirk ( 87083 ) <dirk@one.net> on Saturday February 10, 2018 @08:10AM (#56099775) Homepage

    Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs,

    You're just trolling us now, right?

  • If you try to read the sentence as ending with "... storing, packing for (shipment or distribution) of", where is the conjunction that ties together the activities being enumerated?

    But I'm pretty sure this was discussed to death the last several times it was on /..

    • by tomhath ( 637240 )
      The meaning of sentence is clear: "storing, packing for shipment, or distribution". That has to be how it was intended because the style guidelines for writing Maine laws explicitly calls for the Oxford comma. Lawmakers are not permitted to write it with the extra comma.
      • by pots ( 5047349 )
        If the guidelines in Maine specifically call for using the Oxford comma, then wouldn't the meaning of the law be the opposite of what you're saying? If they left the comma out, and it wasn't a mistake, and lists of multiple items are required to have an Oxford comma in Maine laws, then the meaning is that only packers are exempted. Not distributors.
        • by pots ( 5047349 )
          Er, wait. Sorry, I misread your comment - first you say that the comma is called for, then you say that lawmakers are not permitted to use it. I'm not clear on what the means.
          • His post reads as if he is under the impression that an oxford comma is an implicit comma before the conjunction at the end of the list, whereas in reality it is an explicit comma.

      • The meaning of sentence is clear: "storing, packing for shipment, or distribution". That has to be how it was intended because the style guidelines for writing Maine laws explicitly calls for the Oxford comma. Lawmakers are not permitted to write it with the extra comma.

        You contradict yourself. If the style guidelines explicitly call for the Oxford comma, lawmakers are required to write it with the extra comma. Writing it without the extra comma would explicitly require everything after the last comma to be interpreted as a single item: "packing for shipment or distribution of: agricultural produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods."

        If the Oxford comma is required, and the meaning of the statement was intended to be "packing for shipment, or distribution of

      • by msauve ( 701917 )

        The meaning of sentence is clear: "storing, packing for shipment, or distribution".

        Yes, but not for the reason you give - you seem confused as to exactly what the "Oxford comma" is.

        Words have purpose and meaning. "Packing for (shipment or distribution)" is redundant - distribution includes shipping, so including "shipment" adds nothing to the clause. And if that were the intended meaning, they could have stopped at "packing for distribution."

        "Packing for shipment, or distribution" instead of being redunda

    • It doesn't help that TFA isn't fine, because it is missing a comma after "storing" The line should read:

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

      .

    • I'll go the other way. The law is dumb and the court saw a loophole.

      There just shouldn't be any exceptions to overtime laws.

      • by Entrope ( 68843 )

        It is fair to argue that the law is dumb, but it is wrong for judges to apply their political disagreements to distort plain writing. The court should have said something like "The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual obliges lawmakers to omit the suggested comma. Even if they were permitted to include it, to construe the list as ending with an item of 'packing for shipment or distribution' would render the sentence ungrammatical and introduce a further ambiguity as to whether the list is meant to apply when

        • I hear judges in the US are elected. Maybe you should run?

          The US judiciary is inherently political. Whether or not that is a good thing is up for debate.

          However, the US legal system is also a common law one, which means that if the letter of the law is ambiguous, courts are obligated to rule based on precedent and, failing that, the most compelling argument. In this case it seems the court found there was sufficient ambiguity in the letter of the law to rule that the default position should be consistency w

          • by Entrope ( 68843 )

            The court in question is a federal one. Federal judges in the USA are not elected, and are supposed to be non-partisan. Maybe you should learn something before you run your mouth.

            There is no reasonable ambiguity in what the text of this law meant. The claimed alternative reading gives a sentence that is grammatically wrong, is written contrary to the legislature's rules for syntax, and has a further inherent ambiguity stemming from the grammatical error. It was gross error for the court to accept such a

  • In other news, England and the U.S. go back to war following the discovery that the treaty that ended the War of 1812 contained a quotation mark followed by a period instead of the other way around. President Trump was quick to respond. "This perceived insult to the American quotation mark protocol will not stand!" British Prime Minister Teresa May also issued a response. "If war is necessary to defend our quotations, then so be it".

  • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Saturday February 10, 2018 @08:38AM (#56099871) Journal

    For those who could use a reminder, here's a quick description of the Oxford comma debate, with a couple examples.

    In a sentence with a list, you can use a comma before the last item or not:
    The flag is red, white and blue.
    The flag is red, white, and blue.

    Some people say it reads better without the "extra" comma. They also point out that not having the comma can sometimes lead to ambiguity, because it looks like an appositive:

    The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

    Nelson Mandela is a demigod and dildo collector?! Adding a comma clarifies that "dildo collector" is a separate item:
    The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and a dildo collector.

    On the other hand, using the comma can create ambiguity:

    To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

    Your mother is Ayn Rand? Better without the comma:
    To my mother, Ayn Rand and God.

    Some sentences are indeed more clear without the comma, some are more clear with the comma. Should you use it? Not when it makes the sentence unclear, I say. When adding the comma makes it sound like your mom is Ayn Rand, don't add the comma. When leaving the comma out makes Mandela a dildo collector, don't leave it out. Write for clarity, using the comma where it's needed, I say.

    The party included the strippers, Bill Clinton and Al Franken.

    The party included the strippers, Bill Clinton, and Al Franken.

    The first form sounds like Bill and Al are the strippers. The Oxford comma makes this sentence more clear. Use the second form to indicate they party with strippers in this case.

    The party included the serial sexual harassers, Bill Clinton, and Al Franken.

    Never an Oxford comma when it IS supposed to be an appositive.

    • Much better not to mix lists and appositives, or use parentheses.

      The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela (an 800-year-old demigod) and a dildo collector.

      Much clearer, with or without a comma before 'and'
      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        Much better not to mix lists and appositives, or use parentheses.

        That works for clarity but linguistically it sounds like "oh by the way he's also a 800 year old demigod". It particularly doesn't work well if it's a quote since parentheses are a purely written tool, or if the title you're appending is actually more important than the name like "This is Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans, Cora and Hawkeye." then you're better off splitting it up "This is Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans and that's Cora and Hawkeye." This doesn't resolve the ambiguity between lists and a

    • To my mother, Ayn Rand and God.

      Your mother Ayn Rand is God?

    • by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Saturday February 10, 2018 @09:10AM (#56099947) Homepage Journal
      The mother-Rand-God sentence is to three entities, and it’s better with the comma. If Ayn Rand is actually your mother, dedicate your book to “to Ayn Rand, my mother, and to God”. Which, if you insist upon such a shorthand way of thanking people, is probably about as clear as you’ll get. However, since you’re publishing a book and they’ll let you have a whole page for your dedication, just put every individual on a separate line.
      • If Ayn Rand is actually your mother, dedicate your book to âoeto Ayn Rand, my mother, and to Godâ.

        Actually, that's still ambiguous if "my mother" is modifying "Ayn Rand" or is the second item in a list. I think that sort of in-line aside is better handled with a hyphen: "to my mother - Ayn Rand - and God."

        The comma is, unfortunately, overloaded with several different uses. That's what causes the ambiguity in "to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God," not the Oxford comma per se. So in situations w

    • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Saturday February 10, 2018 @09:29AM (#56099997) Homepage

      And your examples make it abundantly clear that in law you should turn lists into actual lists not run-on sentences.

      "The acitivites

      a) canning
      b) processing
      c) preserving
      d) freezing
      e) drying
      f) marketing
      g) storing
      h) packaging for shipment
      i) distribution

      of the product groups

      a) agricultural produce
      b) meat and fish products
      c) perishable foods

      are exempt."

      Granted, it eats up a lot of vertical space. But it's dead simple for anyone to read and leaves no ambiguity that you really mean an x*y matrix of exceptions. Because even with the Oxford comma there's still doubt in my mind that you can interpret it as general exceptions for activities a)-g) and "packaging for shipment and distribution of agricultural produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods;" For example a sentence like "buses, trucks and cars over 3500kg" is that "buses, trucks and (cars over 3500kg)" or "(buses, trucks and cars) over 3500kg". It doesn't get clearer by an Oxford comma.

      • Because even with the Oxford comma there's still doubt in my mind that you can interpret it as general exceptions for activities a)-g) and "packaging for shipment and distribution of agricultural produce; meat and fish products; and perishable foods;"

        Exactly - and this is what I was thinking as I was reading the summary of the article. That sentence would be a huge no-no in any research manuscript that I wold main-author.

        For example a sentence like "buses, trucks and cars over 3500kg" is that "buses, trucks and (cars over 3500kg)" or "(buses, trucks and cars) over 3500kg". It doesn't get clearer by an Oxford comma.

        And again, we're in full agreement: the oxford comma doesn't make things any more less ambiguous.

        Just avoid that kind of craptacular sentence, and all will be fine, oxford comma or not.

        And for the record, I am an oxford comma user, but not a worshiper.

      • In other words, you write it more like code.

        The problem with natural languages is that both operator precedence and conditional scope are ill-defined.

      • But then people wouldn't have to hire lawyers to help them understand the laws they're supposed to obey. You're forgetting that laws are made by lawyers, for lawyers to read, to benefit lawyers. It's like the coder who deliberately writes obfuscated code and doesn't comment it to guarantee he can't be fired and replaced.
      • And your examples make it abundantly clear that in law you should turn lists into actual lists not run-on sentences.

        "The acitivites

        a) canning
        b) processing
        c) preserving
        d) freezing
        e) drying
        f) marketing
        g) storing
        h) packaging for shipment
        i) distribution

        of the product groups

        a) agricultural produce
        b) meat and fish products
        c) perishable foods

        are exempt."

        What if the law intended to also include packaging for distribution as distinct activity separate from packaging for shipping? I'm thinking along the lines of packing a product and selling it at the place of manufacture without any shipping activity.

        It is entirely possible that "packaging for shipment or distribution" is exactly what the law intended to exclude from overtime pay, and not the truck drivers at all.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      The party included the strippers, Bill Clinton and Al Franken.

      The party included the strippers, Bill Clinton, and Al Franken.

      The first form sounds like Bill and Al are the strippers.
      No it does not. If you wanted to say that, the first comma would be ommited: "The party included the strippers Bill Clinton and Al Franken." or you would write a colon: "The party included the strippers: Bill Clinton and Al Franken."

      The Oxford comma makes this sentence more clear. Use the second form to indicate they party with

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        No it does not. If you wanted to say that, the first comma would be ommited (sic): "The party included the strippers Bill Clinton and Al Franken." or you would write a colon: "The party included the strippers: Bill Clinton and Al Franken."

        The first form doesn't have the same meaning at all, it's like their job description or something. "The party included the singers, Chistina Aguilera and Britney Spears" implies they were performing at the preceding concert or something and were/are "the singers". "The party included the singers Chistina Aguilera and Britney Spears" just means they're singers and at the party. The colon works but exaggerates the pause, like you're making an announcement or something "Introducing the strippers: Bill Clinton

        • Explains what - the inability to speak English properly or the arrogance in assuming he does?

          P.S. He's not German anyway. Some time back I remember he didn't know the time-manner-place rule.

      • by skam240 ( 789197 )

        Yes it does.

        From the opening of: https://www.grammarbook.com/pu... [grammarbook.com]

        "Commas and periods are the most frequently used punctuation marks. Commas customarily indicate a brief pause; they're not as final as periods."

        A comma is typically read as a brief pause in a sentence. Even if it's grammatically correct to only have the one comma, the single pause very much implies that Bill and Al are the strippers as it reads like they are grouped together. A pause between Bill and Al's names very nicely breaks them up maki

    • It is the "serial comma"; let's leave "Oxford comma" and/or "Harvard comma" to hipsters, bloggers, and trendy fad followers.

      âoeCommas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim." -- E.B. White

    • by rgmoore ( 133276 )

      My general experience is that it is most important to be consistent in your usage and conscious of the possibility of confusion. If you always use an Oxford comma, people will read your lists as lists rather than appositives. You can make this even more clear by using the alternative ordering ("God and my mother, Ayn Rand") when you do want to use an appositive. Similarly, if you avoid the Oxford comma, people will learn to read your lists that way, and you can clarify by using a colon to separate a desc

    • For those who could use a reminder, here's a quick description of the Oxford comma debate, with a couple examples.

      Nice post. Thanks for it.

      But let's have a word about hyphens. Your post was about the Oxford-comma debate, not the Oxford comma-debate. Hyphens are helpful (and sometimes essential) to clarify compound nouns and adjectives. What's a "high school building?" Is it a building that's a high-school, or a school-building that's high?

    • To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

      Your mother is Ayn Rand?

      No one would read that and conclude your mother is either Ayn Rand nor would they conclude either Ayn Rand or your mother are God.
      Removing the Oxford comma doesn't change that. You're describing your mother then don't add a comma:

      To my mother Ayn Rand, and God.

  • This is as close you can get to the seriousness of "Nazi" in this expression.

  • While I'm all for the drivers and don't think there should be any exemptions except maybe over a short time when the law was adopted.... But it's pretty clear to me what the intent was. They wouldn't have been mentioned if they weren't meant to be exempted.

    In cases like this I think it would be reasonable for the court to send it back to the legislature for a vote of conferment as well as to clarify the wording. They wouldn't get their overtime but it might get the legislature to remove all those people as

    • by Entrope ( 68843 )

      There is also the fact that the Maine Legislature [maine.gov] explicitly tells people to leave out the Oxford comma. Part III, Chapter 4, Section 2, part A: "Although authorities on punctuation may differ, when drafting Maine law or rules, don't use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series. Do not write: 'Trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers' Do write: 'Trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers'".

      That is followed with a warning to be careful "if an item in the series is modified" (as is the

      • That doesn't matter because in this case there is a grammatical error either way.

        Your point would have value if by using that interpretation you were left with a sentence that was correct and has clear meaning. But since we know they made a mistake, reciting their local rule doesn't help to tell us which mistake they made.

        • by Entrope ( 68843 )

          There is no grammatical error if you assume that the legislature followed their Drafting Manual and omitted the serial comma between the last two items in the list ("packing for shipment" and "distribution"). If you take the last item as "packing for shipment or distribution", then you introduce both a grammatical error -- a missing conjunction -- and a violation of the Maine Legislature Drafting Manual.

          • All the lawyers on all the sides agree that there is a grammatical error either way.

            If you can't find it, it just means you should pipe down.

    • They wouldn't have been mentioned if they weren't meant to be exempted.

      You missed the whole story: Who "they" is is disputed. Everybody agrees "they" were mentioned because "they" are exempt!

  • It took less than five minutes to type this.

    Nine specific activities are exempted from mandatory overtime pay for each of the following three items:

    1) meat
    2) fish products
    and
    3) perishable foods

    The nine (9) activities are:
    1) canning
    2) processing
    3) preserving
    4) freezing
    5) drying
    6) marketing
    7) storing
    8) packing for shipment
    and
    9) distribution

    So, at my usual legal fee billing rate of $360.00 per hour, somebody owes me $30.00 (cash only: no checks, money orders, EFT drafts, or wire transfers)

    • by green1 ( 322787 )

      You assume that clarity was desired. Laws are written mostly by lawyers, if they are easy to understand, who will need the lawyers?

      • Laws are written by politicians, and have to be approved by a majority of one or more groups. Sometimes putting a little ambiguity into the law makes it easier to find votes to pass it. Faction A might want a certain provision in, and faction B might oppose it, so actually saying one or another might be enough to sink the bill.

    • It took less than five minutes to type this.

      Nine specific activities are exempted from mandatory overtime pay for each of the following three items:

      1) meat
      2) fish products
      and
      3) perishable foods

      The nine (9) activities are:
      1) canning
      2) processing
      3) preserving
      4) freezing
      5) drying
      6) marketing
      7) storing
      8) packing for shipment or distribution

      Fixed it for you, as it is written in the law. Packing doesn't require it to be shipped. These items may be packed for distribution other than shipping.

  • What is that colon doing between "distribution of" and "agricultural produce"?
    And why are there commas in the first list and semicolons in the second?

    The best way to end the argument once and for all is to always use a bulleted list.

  • Profiting from silly mistakes, making sure the t's are crossed, the i's dotted, since the beginning of time.
  • An ambiguous (formal) grammar. We use commas to set off appositives and to separate items of a list; there's no context-free way in which you can determine which of those two functions is being performed, the only solution is to rewrite the sentence.

    There is literally no solution that works in every case if you have only commas to work with. Eliminate ambiguity on one set of sentences and introduce it in another. However this problem could easily be solved if we had distinct tokens for setting off aposi

  • ... is that the legal department of the dairy spent the time poring over the law looking for something/anything--Ah Ha! A grammatical error!--that allowed them to engage in the practice that resulted in the lawsuit. The company had to know they were violating the intent of the law but the missing comma somehow made it okay. It's funny how, when money is at stake, all sorts of tortured arguments justifying bad behavior (missing f*cking comma?) wind up being litigated in the court system.

  • You can write English without ever using comma. You can write English without ever making a list. You can use a tedious style like this for all your legal documents. Eventually we will eliminate other core syntax from English in our legal documents. Maybe pronounces should be next?

    (I am not a lawyer; I don't even play one on TV)

  • by xlsior ( 524145 ) on Saturday February 10, 2018 @04:00PM (#56101221) Homepage
    ...is why there are a bunch of exceptions in the first place -- people doing similar labor in a different industry would get overtime regardless.
  • Call it a serial comma if you like. My Oxford qualified, English teacher pointed out that it is bad grammar to put a comma after the penultimate item in a list before the "and".

    The English language may have changed since them so perhaps bad grammar is not what it was. I tend to see it as an error that has crept in that users have spent a lot of time trying to justify. Please justify it under another name. "Serial comma" might do but not one that pretends that it was invented on this side of the pond!

The IBM purchase of ROLM gives new meaning to the term "twisted pair". -- Howard Anderson, "Yankee Group"

Working...