Serial Comma Fans Gone Wild

The serial comma made headlines recently after a Maine court ruled that state employment laws were unclear due to lack of a serial comma.

A group of delivery drivers were suing their employer for overtime pay. The state doesn't require employers to pay overtime for a number of activities, including "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution."

Note that there's no comma after "shipment." Without one, the court asserted, it's unclear whether "distribution" is an object of "packing for." The drivers don't do "packing for distribution." They do distribution, but not packing for distribution.

The court saw this as an opportunity to preach its punctuation partisanship. Without the "clarifying virtues of serial commas," the court wrote, there were two possible interpretations of Maine's statute. The court was forced to choose between the two interpretations and, in the end, sided with the drivers.

The court blew it.

That statute is unambiguous. It doesn't need another comma to be clear. It already states that "distribution" is a separate list item and it's not an object of "packing for." How do we know this? Because of the conjunctions.

In English, a conjunction precedes the final item in a list: Red, white and blue. Red, white, purple, green and blue.

Now look at this sentence: "The sandwiches we serve at our restaurant include turkey, tuna and ham and cheese."

That's three sandwiches. We know that "ham and cheese" refers to a single sandwich because there's an "and" before it.

Now look at: "The sandwiches we serve include turkey, tuna, ham and cheese."

We took out "and" before ham and now we have four sandwiches. The only remaining "and" in the sentence indicates that "cheese" is a separate list item.

The Maine statute was a more confusing example of the same dynamic. "Canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution" lists nine items. The court thought it was just eight, with "packing for shipment or distribution" as the final item. But without a conjunction like "or" or "and" before "packing," that's not possible.

For a longer explanation, here's a column I wrote about it.




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