Anyone who thinks the comma before “and” is not important, a federal court says otherwise.
People have strong opinions about the need for a comma before “and” in a series of three or more things. Some people insist on it, and others feel just as strongly that it’s not necessary, but a court case in Maine shows that the comma can affect the meaning of the sentence.
Truck drivers sued a dairy company for more than four years’ worth of overtime pay, worth about $10 million, and the company argued that the drivers were exempt under the law. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston said the absence of the comma in a series (called the serial or Oxford comma) made the law unclear, so it ruled in favor the drivers.
Here is where the comma before “and” in a series can make a difference. In We have several types of vehicles, including motorcycles, cars and trucks, some people will insert a comma after cars; others won’t. Whether it’s necessary, depends whether cars and trucks represents one category of vehicles.
Lawyers for the Maine dairy said state law does not require companies to pay overtime to drivers who are engaged in “canning, processing, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” perishable foods.
The court said that without a comma, it was unclear whether the law referred to packing for shipment as one activity and distribution as another, or whether the law referred to drivers who perform one task called packing for shipment or distribution.
It was a key issue, because the dairy’s delivery drivers don’t pack perishable foods, but they do distribute them. A comma after shipment would have made it clear that the law applies to people who ship and to people who distribute. The absence of a comma created enough uncertainty, the court said, that it could not rule in favor of the company.
This is not the first time punctuation has figured into a major court case.
In 2004, when many gay and lesbian couples were marrying in San Francisco, conservatives filed a court order to halt it.
One group asked a judge to require the city to cease “marriages of same-sex couples; to show cause before this court.” The judge noted that as written, the semicolon makes the first half of the sentence a complete thought. That is, it wants the city to stop marrying same-sex couples. Period.
The judge said the sentence should have been written “marriages of same-sex couples, or to show cause before this court.” He said that because the semicolon changed the meaning of the sentence, he could not grant the injunction.
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.