In Maine, USA, the interpretation of a state law involving overtime pay revolved around the use of the Oxford comma.

What is the Oxford comma?

The Oxford comma comes before the last item in a list of 3 or more things, usually to resolve ambiguity. This example illustrates its use:

  • Without Oxford comma: I love my friends, Beyoncé and the Queen.
  • With Oxford comma: I love my friends, Beyoncé, and the Queen.

The confusion created by the use or lack of the Oxford comma can be avoided by rephrasing an ambiguous sentence altogether (for example, I love Beyoncé, the Queen and my friends).

The case of O’Connor and others v Oakhurst Dairy

This odd judgment begins: ‘For want of a comma, we have this case’.

The court had to interpret an exemption from overtime pay and held that, if the exemption clause had included an Oxford comma, the employees would not have been entitled to overtime pay.

The exemption states that:

‘The protection of the overtime law does not apply to:

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 related to the meaning of the words ‘packing for shipment or distribution’.

The employees (who are delivery drivers) said that the words refer to the single activity of packing, whether the packing is for shipment or for distribution. The drivers do not engage in any packing. If the packing for shipment or distribution is one activity, they fall outside the exemption (and are entitled to overtime).

The employer said that packing for shipment is separate from the activity of distribution (which the drivers do) and therefore argued that the drivers fall within the exemption.

The clause does not have an Oxford comma after ‘shipment’, therefore the court interpreted the phrase to refer to one activity, allowing the drivers’ claim to succeed.

Watch your punctuation

Be careful when using commas.

The Maine Legislative drafting manual cautions drafters against using commas, which it describes as ‘the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting and, perhaps, the English language’.