REAL LIFE NEWS: THE IMPORTANCE OF PUNCTUATION PROVED IN LABOUR DISPUTE
One of my roles in my real life work is to proof-read and edit books and articles; that means correcting people’s punctuation. I am very picky about getting punctuation right, because it really does matter – as proved by a recent court case that revolved around the placing of a comma.
The dispute was between a group of dairy drivers and the company that employed them. The drivers claimed the state law said they should be paid overtime pay; the company disputed that. The difference of opinion was because of the lack of a comma – a particular type of comma called a serial comma, or an Oxford comma.
Let me explain. When you have a list of things you separate the items with a comma, then put “and” before the final item and do not use a comma. A typical list might be: I went shopping and I bought eggs, butter, flour and sugar. That would make a lovely cake!
But sometimes lists can be confusing such as this one: I love my parents, Beyoncé and Harry Potter. Well, that makes it look like my parents actually are Beyoncé and Harry Potter, which I can assure you is not the case. Inserting a comma into the sentence - I love my parents, Beyoncé, and Harry Potter – clears that up.
Back to the Maine court case. The clause in the Maine law states that overtime pay is not payable for the following activities:
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 comes with the words “packing for shipment or distribution”. The drivers claimed that because there was no comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution”, the law referred to a single activity of “packing”. That would mean the drivers, who don’t do packing, would be eligible for overtime pay.
The company said the law meant “packing” and “distribution” were two separate activities. The drivers did “distribution” so were not due overtime pay.
In the end, the judge ruled in favour of the drivers. He said that the lack of the comma made the law ambiguous: “We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.”
A win for the drivers – and a lesson for anyone drawing up laws, contracts or any other legal documents that the placing of commas really does matter!