If you know me at all, there's a particular grammatical deployment of the comma I prefer when it comes to serial sentences. A few years ago, I wrote at length about it in my piece, Defending & Deflating the Use of the Oxford Comma. And so it is only fate that I stumble upon this gem of an article on the Times about how the misuse of the comma could cost a Maine dairy company millions of dollars in an overtime dispute from truckers.
How did this exactly come about?
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?
Delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but they don’t pack the boxes themselves. Whether the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence was read.
Apparently, the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual prohibits the use of the Oxford comma. While I'd argue against that directive, perhaps there is simply a clearer way to describe the contentious language in question so as to avoid misunderstanding?