A few days ago my husband and I found ourselves in a discussion about punctuation with the lawyer who prepared our wills. She explained the need for clarity in legal drafting, and highlighted the danger that a misplaced punctuation mark could completely change the effect of a clause. I don’t know what made me think of it, but in a moment of word-geekery I checked the draft will in front of me and noticed that the list of our potential executors (Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane) was written without a comma after the penultimate name.
I asked, and was told that this is the approved punctuation for a list of items or names: apparently the legal manual of style in England does not favor the Oxford comma. The discovery surprised me. If the lack of a serial comma can make nonsense of a simple sentence like “Susan organized a party and invited her parents, the Queen of England and Richard Branson,” (clearly Her Majesty and Sir Richard are not Susan’s parents), then surely, I thought, it would have the potential to cause confusion in some contracts.
I was curious, so when I got home, I spent some quality time on the interwebs and was tickled to find that the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently issued a ruling that hinged on this very point, regarding overtime pay for drivers at Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine.
State law requires workers in Maine to be paid time and a half for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week, but with an exception as follows:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
- Agricultural produce;
- Meat and fish products; and
- Perishable foods.
The drivers argued that the pay exception applied to the packing for shipment or distribution, not the distribution itself. The court ruled that the law was not clear, which led to an overtime settlement of around $5 million for the drivers.
I particularly enjoyed the comment by the drivers’ lawyer, David G Webbert, who agreed that an additional comma after “shipment” would have made the meaning clear. Quoted in this New York Times article, he said, “That comma would have sunk our ship.”
I don’t know about you, but I love the idea that even in our informal, chat-friendly world, precise punctuation has a value beyond providing material for internet memes and editorial style spats.