Missing Comma Costs Millions

www.RuthlessEditor.comHaving just celebrated National Grammar Day, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on a recent and widely reported court case about how lack of a comma will cost a company millions.

If you somehow missed it, here are three examples of coverage:

Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute

Missing comma costs business $13 million

The Oxford Comma: Great For Listing, Pontificating, And Winning Court Cases

The essence: Delivery drivers who work for Oakhurst Dairy, a Portland, Maine-based company, will be entitled to an estimated $13 million in overtime pay after winning a three-year legal dispute with their employer. An appeals judge ruled that lack of a comma made interpretation of the phrasing of an agreement vague.

From one of the stories:

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is a comma placed immediately before a conjunction such as “and” or “or” in a series of three or more terms, as in: “First, second, and third” versus “First, second and third.”

While generally not used by journalists, the Oxford comma is often used in academic publications. Debate has raged for years about its use — opponents feel the extra comma is unnecessary, but supporters claim it helps resolve ambiguity.

The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, cites the following example: “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president.” Without the second comma, she is taking a picture of her parents, who are the president and vice president.

Here’s how the contract was worded:

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 judge ruled that “packing for shipment or distribution of” needed a comma after shipment to separate those elements, as they are two distinct actions: “packing for shipment of, or distribution of:”

I have blogged about commas more than once, and one post deals specifically with the Oxford comma. My book also has four short chapters that deal with comma usage.

Because The Associated Press Stylebook is my primary resource for punctuation questions, I generally do not use the Oxford comma. However, I just completed a website editing project where I recommended that the client employ the Oxford comma throughout its site.

There was detailed information that required the clarity an Oxford comma provides. Considering the expected reading audience and the number of times a second comma was required, I was concerned that readers would be confused if the Oxford commas appeared in a fair number cases but not in others.

This case provides an excellent example of why we have to use care with what we perceive as “grammar rules.” Applying common sense when using punctuation that helps avoid confusion or misinterpretation should determine whether we use a comma or not, a question mark or not, a colon or not.

Thanks to blog readers who paid attention to this news item and who, in turn, made sure I was aware of it.

Have you been in a situation where punctuation — either present or missing — wreaked havoc for a company or individual?

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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2 thoughts on “Missing Comma Costs Millions

  1. Brenda Felber

    Kathy, I’m forwarding this to my daughter. A missing comma or two for me is one thing, but in her line of work it carries a bit more weight! Thanks for the post!

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