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What is the Oxford comma and why is it worth $10 million dollars?

The Oxford comma, or serial comma, is the comma placed inside a list of items and can cause the individual who reads the list to be confused. For example, the list of "cars, trucks, and wagons" indicates three separate types of ways of transportation. However, if you leave out the comma and write it "cars, trucks and wagons" some individuals including the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, would say the phrase coming before the three words in the list might take on a different meaning because of the lack of the second comma.

The New York Times does a great summary and explanation of the issue:

"In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy, seeking more than four years’ worth of overtime pay that they had been denied. Maine law requires workers to be paid 1.5 times their normal rate for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carves out some exemptions. The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one, but it was anything but for the truck drivers. Note the lack of Oxford comma — also known as the serial comma — in the following state law, which says overtime rules do 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.

Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them?"

Long story short, the court ruled in favor of the drivers and a settlement was reached with an award of $50,000 each to the five drivers who brought the lawsuit. In addition, "Other drivers will have to file claims to get a share of the funds and will be paid a minimum of $100 or the amount of overtime pay they were owed, based on their work records from May 2008 until August 2012," the Press-Herald reports. Approximately 127 drivers are included in the settlement. 

Pay attention to your grammar, because there are differences. As a parting example, I will use my favorite example of the Oxford comma.

Let's eat grandma. Let's eat, grandma. 

The first example indicates literally eating your grandma while the second example informs grandma you are ready to eat.  Don't be caught between eating dinner and eating your grandma for dinner.

Written by Alex Sinatra, Associate General Counsel, Intuitive Edge - Your Contracts Solution


Lisa Scott