The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual refers to commas as “the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in legal drafting”. The ever important Oxford comma, which the manual asks lawmakers not to use, may cost a dairy company in Portland, Maine approximately $10 million.
Overtime, as per Maine law, is 1.5 times the normal rate for each extra hour beyond 40 hours, with certain activities being exempt. Exemption F in the state labor guidelines, lists activities for which overtime is not paid. Due to the lack of the Oxford comma – also known as the serial comma, in the following sentence –
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.
it was unclear whether the law intended to exclude “distribution” or “packing for shipment or distribution”. The absence of the comma counts “packing for shipment or distribution” as one activity. Distribution, however, is not an activity exempt from overtime, which is why they ought to get paid for it.
The state argued that it was not its intention to leave out “distribution” from the clause regarding overtime pay. Reversing a lower court’s decision, however, the court ruled, “If the drivers engage only in distribution and not in any of the standalone activities that Exemption F covers , the drivers fall outside of Exemption F’s scope and thus within the protection of the Maine overtime law.”
Love it or hate it, the Oxford comma is a punctuation mark you cannot ignore.