by Kathleen Watson
Having just celebrated National Grammar Day, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on a widely reported court case about how a missing comma will cost a company millions.
Here are three examples of coverage:
The essence: Delivery drivers who work for Oakhurst Dairy, a Portland, Maine-based company, will be entitled to an estimated $13 million in overtime pay after winning a three-year legal dispute with their employer. An appeals judge ruled that lack of a comma made interpretation of the phrasing of an agreement vague.
From one of the stories:
The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is a comma placed immediately before a conjunction such as “and” or “or” in a series of three or more terms, as in: “First, second, and third” versus “First, second and third.”
While generally not used by journalists, the Oxford comma is often used in academic publications. Debate has raged for years about its use — opponents feel the extra comma is unnecessary, but supporters claim it helps resolve ambiguity.
The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, cites the following example: “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.” Without the second comma, she is taking a picture of her parents, who are the president and vice president.
Here’s how the contract was worded:
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 judge ruled that “packing for shipment or distribution of” needed a comma after shipment to separate those elements, as they are two distinct actions: “packing for shipment of, or distribution of:”
This case provides an excellent example of why we have to use care with what we perceive as “grammar rules.” Applying common sense when using punctuation that helps avoid confusion or misinterpretation should determine whether we use a comma or not, a question mark or not, a colon or not.
Have you been in a situation where punctuation — either present or missing — wreaked havoc for a company or individual? Share your story here.