Good Grammar Matters Under the Law

I have been accused by my children of being a “Grammar Nazi.”  After years of haranguing, they know better than to end a sentence with a preposition in my presence (and, hopefully, when I am not around).  Another of my pet peeves is the common practice of dropping the Oxford comma (aka, the serial comma) in writing. This week, a U.S. Court of Appeals opinion reminded us that using the Oxford comma has legal significance as well. 

The Oxford comma is used before the words “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things. Failure to employ it properly can lead to an unintended interpretation.  An example of this is noted in an online blog, Grammarly:  The sentences “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are different.  Without a comma, it looks like the parents in question are, in fact, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

In O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, the U.S Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the absence of an Oxford comma in a state overtime law meant that dairy delivery drivers were entitled to overtime pay. 

Maine’s overtime law says the following activities do not count for overtime pay:

“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.

Note that there is no comma after “shipment.”  In denying overtime to the drivers, the employer argued that the distribution activities are exempt from overtime compensation.  However, the Court sided with the drivers, finding that the absence of the Oxford comma meant that “distribution” modified “packing” in the law, and therefore the drivers were not exempt from overtime compensation.  The drivers’ case was also helped by a legislative construction principle that ambiguities in laws are construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose.

This case serves as a reminder that good grammar matters under the law, as well as under the roof of a pedantic parent.  Like the overtime law at issue here, your contracts, employee manuals, and other legal documents require precision, so having a pedantic lawyer drafting them is a good idea.

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