A group of workers for a dairy producer successfully managed to sue their employer—all thanks to…a comma.
Known as the Oxford comma, this piece of punctuation allows for an important grammatical distinction.
The dairy workers in question claimed they deserved overtime pay for some of their work.
The only thing standing in their way was the following law which dictates work activities that do NOT merit overtime compensation:
“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. “
However, in what could be the ultimate loophole of all loopholes, the drivers argued that the absence of the Oxford comma in the clause excludes their type of work from the list of prohibited overtime activities.
Essentially, does “packing for shipment” constitute its own activity, or is it only applicable to the rest of the sentence, “agricultural produce, meat and fish products, and perishable foods”?
Using the ambiguity derived from the Oxford comma’s absence, the workers argued in their favor and actually won the court case.
“Specifically, if that [list of exemptions] used a serial comma to mark off the last of the activities that it lists,” wrote the circuit judge in the case, “then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform.”
The debate over the Oxford comma’s utility has raged for many years, and even inspired lots of memes like these: