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Oxford comma lovers, rejoice.

Rebekah Lowin
March 17, 2017

Pro tip: If you’re going to get in an argument, make sure your grammar’s on point. Your victory — or defeat! — might just hinge on one little comma.

At least, that’s what happened (really!) in a recent Maine court ruling. In a case concerning the overtime pay of drivers transporting dairy milk from local milk and cream company Oakhurst Dairy, a US court of appeals decided that because Maine’s overtime laws are grammatically ambiguous, the drivers in question should win their appeal and get their desired overtime.

The appeal, which was won on March 13, can be heard in a lower court according to Quartz.

Here’s how it went down.

Maine law states that the following activities do not qualify for overtime pay:

“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.”

Notice how there’s no Oxford comma between “shipment” and “or.” (For the uninitiated, the serial or “Oxford” comma is most often used before “and” or “or” when three or more terms are written in list form.)

It’s unclear, therefore, whether “packing for shipment or distribution of…” is one activity that altogether does not qualify for overtime, or if “packing” and “distributing” are two distinct activities, both of which do not qualify.

If the former is true, then the drivers would not be exempt from overtime, since they do not pack the milk; they simply distribute it. If the latter is true, however, the drivers and the packers would both be exempt.

But it’s impossible to tell, of course, what the original authors of the clause were thinking. Without the comma, it’s pretty much up for good-humored debate. Or, in this case, a very expensive one.

Oakhurst tried to argue that, yes, “packing” and “distributing” were intended as two disparate activities. But the drivers  responded that all other activities in the list ended in “-ing,” while distribution was off on its own as a “-tion” word, meaning it was never intended to be read as its own, separate item.

...Whaaaa?! We like that logic. You go, drivers.

While the first court that heard the case agreed with Oakhurst, the appellate court did not rule in their favor.

And while Maine does have a style guide for legislative rulings, which, as Oakhurst made sure to point out, requires law-makers not to use the Oxford comma, the appeals court argued that it’s important to be as clear as possible in ambiguous cases such as this one.

Phew. We'll wait with bated breath to see how this one pans out.