A Word, Please: Did the court misrule on a comma rule?

Serial comma fans were giddy recently with the news of a Maine court case that was decided by a missing comma.

A group of delivery drivers were suing their employer for overtime pay. The statute they based their suit on notes that the state doesn't require employers to pay overtime for a number of tasks, including "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution."

Note that there's no comma after "shipment." Without one, the judge said, it's unclear whether "distribution" was an object of "packing for." The drivers don't do "packing for distribution." Distribution, yes. Packing for it, no.

Before we go further, a refresher. The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is the second one you see in this list: red, white, and blue. It's the comma that goes before the conjunction, usually "and," in any list, regardless of length: red, white, blue, green, purple, and orange.

Editing styles disagree on whether the serial comma should be used. The Chicago Manual of Style, followed by book and magazine editors, says you should use it. The Associated Press Stylebook, followed by many news media, says you should not.

There's little doubt which camp Maine's First Circuit Court is in.

Without the "clarifying virtues of serial commas," the court wrote, there were two possible interpretations of Maine's statute. The court was stuck with the task of picking one and ultimately sided with the drivers' argument that distribution wasn't exempt from overtime pay, only packing for distribution was.

"If you have ever doubted the importance of the humble Oxford comma, let this supremely persnickety Maine labor dispute set you straight," CNN crowed in its report.

Law blogs and Twitter feeds hailed the news as proof of the serial comma's superiority. Many pointed out that the Chicago Manual of Style is thus proved superior to AP style.

Now, a word from me: hogwash.

The court blew it. And the comma partisans who claimed victory missed the critical point. The meaning of this statute does not hinge on a comma. It hinges on a conjunction.

To see what I mean, consider the list of sandwiches in this sentence: We serve turkey, ham, tuna and peanut butter and jelly.

Even though there are five ingredients on that list, there are only four different sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly count as one. We know this because of one word: the conjunction "and" before "peanut butter."

A serial comma would make little difference: We serve turkey, ham, tuna, and peanut butter and jelly. If you drop the "and" before "peanut butter, you've added a jelly sandwich to your menu: We serve turkey, ham, tuna, peanut butter and jelly.

With this in mind, read the Maine statute again: "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution."

If the word "or" appeared before "packing," the drivers would have been right. But it didn't. There are nine items in that list, not eight as the drivers argued and as the court decided. We know this because a conjunction is needed to introduce the last item of a list.

You could argue that a comma would have made the passage clearer. You'd be right. But does this mean a pro-serial-comma policy is better than a no-serial-comma policy? No. Does it mean that Chicago style is superior to AP? No again. AP, despite its no-serial-comma policy, calls for adding a comma to that statute.

"Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series," AP advises, "if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast."

In other words, you don't need a pro-serial-comma policy. You need something that comma partisans, in their zeal to score a victory, often lack: common sense.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

Copyright © 2017, Burbank Leader

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