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The $10 million dollar comma

For those of you who don’t believe punctuation matters, here’s a news flash; indeed, it does. In one particular case a comma cost Maine’s Oakhurst Dairy $5 million dollars at the conclusion of a $10 million dollar lawsuit that hinged on overtime pay. In what started as casual conversation led to rewriting the state law. A delivery driver for the dairy company and a man in a grocery store stockroom chatted that the driver worked 12 to 16 hours per day. A stockroom worker commented that the driver’s check had to be pretty good, what with all the overtime. The driver said since he was paid a salary, he didn’t get overtime. For some reason the stockroom man was conversant with that portion of the law and he told the driver that under Maine’s laws, not paying the driver overtime, for more than 40 hours worked per week was illegal.

The law read that workers who do not get overtime are those involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of perishable foods.” Milk is perishable, so that means the driver didn’t qualify for overtime, didn’t it? Bring on the lawyers to argue the basic fact — the lack of a comma.

The point in question was that without a comma, ‘packing for shipment or distribution of perishable foods,’ did not mean the same thing as ‘packing for shipment, or distribution of perishable foods.’ The lawyer questioned the clarity. Did the law mean packing for shipment or distribution? Was it supposed to mean packing for shipment, or distribution? Without the comma, it was construed that distribution was not a separate activity from packing for shipment.



The pay for dairy drivers in a class action suit — $10 million — hung in the balance.

The state of Maine has a publication “Maine Legislative Drafting Manual” in which the use of the serial comma, also called the Oxford comma, is frowned upon. Had the Oxford comma been used when writing the law, the ambiguity would not have occurred. To illustrate see the difference in “The influential people on whom I rely are my grandparents, my neighbor and his wife,” vs. “The influential people on whom I rely are my grandparents, my neighbor, and his wife.” In the first sentence I have written that my neighbors are my grandparents, which is not at all what is intended.



After court battles and rulings, the dairy company settled. Five drivers were the named plaintiffs and they each received $50,000; others in the class action were awarded overtime pay owed to them over 50 months of work. The law was rewritten using semicolons instead of commas to remove the ambiguity: “the canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distribution of perishable foods.”

Yes, punctuation matters, just like in this little example. “Let’s eat grandma” and “Let’s eat, grandma.”


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Peggy Sanders

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