Comma usage can be surprisingly contentious. I am always surprised by how many additional ones proof readers put into my manuscripts before they go to the printers (though I have never seriously thought that they were paid by the comma). However, a recent court case has shown just how valuable a comma (or in this case the lack of one) can be.
In Maine, USA, a Mr O’Connor and 50 fellow truck drivers went to court to argue their case for overtime pay. According to the laws of that state, workers are entitled to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week, unless there is a specific exemption. The truck drivers’ firm had told the drivers they were not entitled to overtime pay because the law did not apply to those involved in:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packaging for shipment or distribution of: 1)Agricultural produce, 2) Meat and fish products, 3)Perishable foods.”
The firm claimed that this clause included the drivers who distributed the product. The drivers’ lawyers disagreed, noting the absence of a comma after the word shipment. This, they argued, meant the law could only apply to the people packing the produce ‘for shipment or distribution,’ and not to those whose job it was to distribute it.
In other words, a comma after ‘packaging for shipment’ and before ‘distribution,’ would have made it clear that the drivers were not entitled to overtime. But the absence of a comma, meant they were.
The case went as far as an appeal court judge who ruled that the language was indeed ambiguous, paving the way for the truck drivers to claim overtime pay.
Many guides to grammar state that you should never put a comma before the ‘and’ or ‘or’ that comes before the last noun etc in a long list. Such dogmatism is silly. As the case above shows, the lack of a comma at this point (it is sometimes known as the Oxford Comma, or serial comma) can lead to ambiguity. The overarching guide for all writers, not just law makers, should be – will a comma here make my meaning clearer or not?
As writers, few of us are likely to gain financially from our use of commas, but by applying them judiciously we can at least save our readers from becoming confused. And that’s were a good proof reader comes in useful.
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