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Take That, AP Style! Court of Law Rules The Oxford Comma Necessary, by Kelly Gurnett, The Write Life (republished here with permission)


Which of these two sentences look right to you?

I need a pen, my notes, and a legal pad.

I need a pen, my notes and a legal pad.

The first sentence includes the Oxford comma, sometimes called the “serial comma.” If you do not already use it, you may ask why bother? It is about clarity versus ambiguity. In this case, the Oxford comma made all the difference.

“In this class action lawsuit, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy sued the company over its failure to grant them overtime pay. According to Maine law, workers are entitled to 1.5 times their normal pay for any hours worked over 40 per week. However, there are exemptions to this rule. Specifically, companies don’t need to pay overtime for the following activities:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

Agricultural produce;

Meat and fish product; and

Perishable foods

Note the end of the opening line, where there is no comma before the ’or.’”

The employer argued the employees did not qualify for overtime because “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were two different things. The employees argued that, without the comma before the “or,” they should be paid for both. The court agreed with the employees. The language determining overtime pay was ambiguous because of the missing comma.

“Without that comma, as the judge maintained, this distinction was not clearcut:

Specifically, if that exemption used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists, then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform. And, in that event, the drivers would plainly fall within the exemption and thus outside the overtime law’s protection. But, as it happens, there is no serial comma to be found in the exemption’s list of activities, thus leading to this dispute over whether the drivers fall within the exemption from the overtime law or not.”

How much did this missing comma cost the employer? Approximately $10 million. Proper punctuation matters, especially in legal writing.

Feeling the need for a punctuation refresher? Try this website: http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/comma.html