Commas can be costly
Take a look at these three court cases to appreciate the power of the humble comma.
US$10 million overtime dispute hinges on the Oxford (serial) comma
The first comma case is about the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma).
First a definition. A comma is sometimes added between the last two items in a list for clarity.
The invoice included travel, goods and services tax, and consulting work.
There is an urban myth regarding the serial comma about a woman who left her estate to Jane, William, Mary and Anne. Jane and William argued that the estate should be divided into three, with Mary and Anne sharing a third. An Oxford comma would have prevented this dispute (Jane, William, Mary, and Anne).
Another example often given is: ‘I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.’
An Oxford comma dispute about overtime started in Maine in 2014 when three drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy.
The state law 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.’
Does the law exempt the distribution of the three categories, or does it exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them? The drivers distribute perishable goods, but don’t pack the boxes. They argued that if distribution were an exempt activity, it would have been called distributing perishable goods.
What if the sentence read: ‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of’?
The last comma in red would have made it clear that distribution was a separate activity from packing and that the drivers were not eligible for overtime.
The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit sided with the drivers in March 2017, reversing a lower court decision. About 75 driver are affected to the tune of US$10 million.
A parking fine
The next comma case, in 2016, is amusing rather than hugely costly.
What’s the difference between a:
motor vehicle camper
motor vehicle, camper
According to the law in West Jefferson, Ohio, certain types of vehicles cannot be parked longer than 24 hours, including ‘any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle’.
A woman successfully appealed her parking ticket arguing that her truck was not a ‘motor vehicle camper’. The 12th Ohio District Court of Appeals agreed.
The million-dollar comma
Our last comma case, in 2006, was to do with restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, also known as defining and non-defining clauses. A non-restrictive clause within a sentence has a comma at either end to indicate it is extra information. It can be removed and the sentence still makes sense.
The dress, which she wore to the interview, was purple.
The dress was purple.
What difference does the second comma make in the following sentence?
‘This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.’
This contract was between cable company Rogers Communications and telephone company Bell Aliant, who sought to get out of the deal because the price of pole stringing skyrocketed. Under the contract, they had to give a year’s notice, but could they give notice before the first term ended? They argued they could.
Rogers Communications argued that Aliant was stuck with the contract for at least five years.
In the end, Rogers Communications won, but only because a French version of the contract was clear and unambiguous. A Canadian solution!
If you want to go back further in time, read about a costly comma in US 1872 tariff law.
Learn more about punctuation with Online Writing Training’s online course, Grammar, Punctuation and Usage.
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