A comma can make quite a difference to the meaning of a sentence, and one of them helped resolve a labour dispute.
First some examples of the use of the Oxford or serial comma. What is the Oxford comma?
The presence or lack of a comma before and or or in a list of three or more items is the subject of much debate. Such a comma is known as a serial comma. For a century it has been part of Oxford University Press style to retain or impose this last comma consistently, to the extent that the convention has also come to be called the Oxford comma. However, the style is also used by many other publishers, both in the UK and elsewhere. Examples of the serial comma are:
mad, bad, and dangerous to know
a thief, a liar, and a murderer
a government of, by, and for the people
Grammarly shows where an Oxford comma can just be a matter of style:
Please bring me a pencil, eraser, and notebook.
Please bring me a pencil, eraser and notebook.
And it can make a difference in meaning:
I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.
I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.
Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Krist Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800 year old demigod and a dildo collector.
Now for the labour dispute, which is a bit harder going. The Guardian: Oxford comma helps drivers win dispute about overtime pay
In Maine, the much-disputed Oxford comma has helped a group of dairy drivers in a dispute with a company about overtime pay.
In a judgment that will delight Oxford comma enthusiasts everywhere, a US court of appeals sided with delivery drivers for Oakhurst Dairy because the lack of a comma made part of Maine’s overtime laws too ambiguous.
The state’s 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.
The drivers argued, due to a lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution”, the law refers to the single activity of “packing”, not to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. As the drivers distribute – but do not pack – the goods, this would make them eligible for overtime pay.
Previously, a district court had ruled in the dairy company’s favour, who argued that the legislation “unambiguously” identified the two as separate activities exempt from overtime pay. But the appeals judge sided with the drivers.
Circuit judge David J. Barron wrote:
We conclude that the exemption’s scope is actually not so clear in this regard. And because, under Maine law, ambiguities in the state’s wage and hour laws must be construed liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose, we adopt the drivers’ narrower reading of the exemption.