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How a missing comma cost $13 million

pouring milk, oxford commaEditors have long known that punctuation can save lives. For example, ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is very different to ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’.

Now a court in the US state of Maine has determined that an absence of a comma has cost a trucking company $US10 million (approximately AU$13 million) in unpaid overtime.

The lawyer for the truck drivers who took their employer to court argued that the absence of a comma after ‘shipment’ in the sentence fragment ‘the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…’ meant that packing applied to both ‘shipment’ and ‘distribution’. The lawyers for the trucking company argued that the terms ‘packing for shipment’ and ‘distribution’ should be viewed as two separate concepts.

You can read more details of the grammatical and legal arguments involved in the case in this article from news.com.au, but the outcome was the appeals judge found in favour of the drivers, costing their employer Oakhurst Dairy $13 million in unpaid overtime.

The punctuation mark in question, the Oxford or serial comma, is the subject of heated debate among people who care about such things, but in truth this instance was not really about whether or not you should place a comma immediately before a conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a series of three or more terms (which is what an Oxford comma is). Rather it comes down to whether the existing construction was ambiguous, and the insertion of the comma would reduce or eliminate this ambiguity.

Ultimately the job of a technical writer or editor is to clearly convey meaning with as few words as possible. Sometimes this means adding a comma, and sometimes it might mean taking one away. And sometimes (as was likely the case in Maine) it can be best to simply rewrite the sentence altogether.

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Photo credit: This photo is used under a non-attribution creative commons licence.