What’s in a comma? About $10 million, it seems. The comma punctuated the eye of the storm in a US court last week, where three truck drivers are fighting a case against their employer Oakhurst Dairy for denying them years of overtime pay. For evidence, the truckers pointed out that the state law says overtime rules do not apply to the ‘canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3)
The lack of a comma between ‘shipment’ and ‘or distribution’ meant the legislation applied only to the single act of ‘packing’, and didn’t see ‘packing’ and ‘distribution’ as two separate activities, said the drivers. And since they didn’t pack the goods but distributed them, they were more than eligible for overtime pay—for the last four years, they argued. Acknowledging the ambiguity in the wording, the judge bought their argument and asked the company to pay up.
Those who haven’t got what the fuss is about may do well to read up on the serial comma, aka the Oxford comma (so called because of its popularity with the Oxford University Press people). Its supporters (who, funnily enough, dot the US more than the land of its birth, the UK) believe the punctuation mark should be used before the final conjunction (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘nor’) in any list of more than two items (think ‘eggs, bread, jam, and bananas’). It is especially helpful (and removes all ambiguity), say the comma-pros, when the items in the list double-barrel items, as in ‘He ate cereal, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea for breakfast’ or the now-treacherous ‘Rules do not apply to the storing, marketing, packing for shipment, or distribution of goods’.
To reiterate their point, the yay-sayers delight in quoting from a probably-apocryphal book that is supposedly dedicated to the writer’s ‘parents, Ayn Rand and God’. You don’t need to be told that without a comma after Rand, it’s a fairly dodgy family story.
Most newspapers, which try and use as few characters as possible, stand on the other side of the Oxford comma line. They believe the extra punctuation is pedantic and pompous, and disrupts the flow of a sentence. The New York Times Style Guide, in fact, asks writers to “put economy on the side of the no-comma rule and use only when necessary”.
Well, grammarians can rage till they turn commatose, but the US lawmakers should have paid more attention to Lynne Truss’ book Eats, Shoots & Leaves on the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. In the book, published in 2003, the former BBC Radio host bemoaned the sorry state of punctuation and used a funny tale to make her point. In the story, a panda walks into a café and orders a sandwich. When it arrives, he eats it, then pulls out a gun and fires two shots in the air. Asked to explain his actions, the animal tosses a wildlife manual at a waiter. “I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.” The waiter finds the relevant entry, and reads: ‘Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves’.
I guess you could call it comma comeuppance.