The $5 million comma

Published 6:17 am Saturday, February 1, 2020

Clarity is in short supply across America, but no longer at dairy farms in Maine.

In 2014, you see, drivers for a dairy company in Portland, Maine sued their employer for overtime pay because a state law pertaining to overtime-pay exemptions failed to include the Oxford comma.

What is the Oxford comma?

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It’s the final comma in a list of things, Grammarly explains. In Grammarly’s example, the Oxford comma appears after the word “eraser”: “Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.”

Few use the Oxford comma anymore. Most newspapers, for instance, edit articles according to the Associated Press Stylebook, which does NOT use the Oxford comma.

What’s the big deal? According to some pedantic humorists, proper Oxford-comma use is a huge issue, one that could even save lives.

“Let’s shop, then eat, Grandma” suggests something much less harmful than “Let’s shop, then eat Grandma!”

“Let’s camp, and hunt, Tom” is much less menacing than “Let’s camp, and hunt Tom!”

And “I love cooking my dogs and my family” is much more appalling than “I love cooking, my dogs, and my family.”

Which brings us back to that overtime pay dispute.

According to The New York Times, “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:

“(1) Agricultural produce;

“(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.”

The dispute concerned the words “or distribution of.” The Times reports that since there was no Oxford comma before “or” 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.”

Had there been an Oxford comma, “distribution of the dairy goods” would have clearly been exempt from overtime pay, but it wasn’t clear.

Thus, the dairy company had to cough up $5 million in overtime pay that it wouldn’t have had to pay had an Oxford comma been properly used.

In any event, this story illustrates the importance of clarity in our laws and government processes. If ambiguity in a state law can cost one company $5 million, what might Americans’ increasingly unclear understanding of our government and political landscape be costing us?

Here are some disturbing findings from Annenberg Institute surveys:

“More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;

“More than a third of those surveyed (37%) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;

“Only 39 percent can name all three branches of government.”

Ignorance is dangerous to a representative republic. Voters must be well-informed to prevent smooth-talking, self-serving charlatans from attaining and abusing political power.

What’s worse is that social media platforms enable widespread sharing of misinformation. Too many social media users enthusiastically share unvetted “facts” with likeminded friends at the expense of truth and clarity.

The solution to our increasing lack of clarity? Here are two options, one with a comma, one without:

“Wake up, America!” – or “Wake up America!”

Will Durst is an award- winning, nationally acclaimed columnist, syndicated by Cagle Cartoons Inc.