A ten million dollar comma


I’m laughing. Some people think that I’m overly picky about correct grammar. Overly picky?  Does the outcome of a several million dollar law suit based on the absence of one simple comma sound picky to you?

In the State of Maine there is a in a law requiring payment of at least time-and-a-half for overtime. However, it excludes certain worker activities, and part of this “exclusion” section clarifies which ones.
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:” which is followed by a list of the types of perishable foods covered.

I am a fan of what is known as the “Oxford,” or “serial” comma. That is the comma that may or may not separate the last item in a list from its predecessor. You can see that there is no Oxford comma after “shipment” in the italicized phrase. If there had been, then there would be no argument. Because there is not, the issue arises of whether “packing” is for shipment AND distribution, or for shipment only. The latter would mean that distribution is a separate activity and that those who do it are excluded from the overtime law. They would be paid their regular hourly rate no matter how many hours they worked – which is what had been happening in the past.

In a nutshell, it is clear that the people doing the packing for shipment are excluded from getting time-and-a-half when working overtime. What the argument is about is whether the people doing the distribution, i.e. truck drivers, are also excluded. On the basis of the lack of the Oxford comma, they were suing for that extra “half” for all their overtime over the past four years.

The Decision

Okay, end of story – after two court cases were decided in favor of the employer, the Appeals court overturned that decision. It held that the drivers are entitled to overtime pay, and the employer must pay them what is owed from back pay. The New York Times estimates that total payment to be around ten million dollars – because an Oxford comma was missing.

My point, of course, is that variations around grammatical correctness and sentence structure can have very real consequences.

When I was young, and argued about the importance of some minor detail my mother would reply with a long story. It began with, “For want of a nail, a horseshoe was lost, for want of a horseshoe a horse was lost….” And so on until a battle, a war, and then a country had been lost, all because of that one missing horseshoe nail. In this case, for want of an Oxford comma, a dairy company in Maine stands to have to pay an estimated ten million dollars in back wages to its drivers. Unless, of course, a subsequent court case overturns it.

Fortunately, such situations are rare. Unfortunately, grammatical glitches that can change the meaning of a sentence are fairly common. That is why, addition to being my Life Strategy Coaching, I am in process of becoming a Grammatical Consultant for website owners.

I will let you know when the new website launches. No need to worry, this one will not disappear.

If, for whatever reason, you want to browse the New York Times account of this case, go to.

And if you actually enjoy legalistic nit-picking, or just want something that might help you get to sleep, here is the link to the actual court decision – all 29 pages of it.


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