Copyright 2013 Pacific Northwest Writers Association. All Rights Reserved
by Cherie Tucker
To all of you who insist in putting in that comma before the and in a series and who have been told it isn’t necessary, United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has declared that it is. Just this month their decision stated that because of a missing comma, instructions for delivery drivers were unclear, and the court ruled against a dairy company in Maine, awarding the drivers “an estimated $10 million.”
The sentence in the state law regarding what overtime rules do not apply to, reads:
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.
Because delivery drivers distribute but do not pack the boxes, they sued that they had been denied overtime pay for more than four years. Daniel Victor wrote in his article published in The Seattle Times about the case:
Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them?
Delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but they don’t pack the boxes themselves. Whether the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence was read.
If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court on Monday sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor.
The point of it all is that when the little comma is included, the meaning of what was written is clear. Even if the sentence seems clear in its absurdity—On the plane there were two serial killers, a priest and a baby—put in the comma to ensure that your reader is certain of what you meant. It’s all about mind control, after all.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com.