Love it or hate it, grammar can change your life. Don’t believe me? Just look south of our border. A court case in Maine is all about the controversial Oxford comma. Now, let me tell you, I love me some Oxford Commas. I’m like Oprah.
I’d put commas almost everywhere if I had a choice. Which is why I find it very interesting that there’s a civil dispute over that exact piece of punctuation.
In Maine, there is an overtime law that requires employers to pay employees who work more than forty hours a week, though there are exemptions. The Oakhurst Dairy Company used one of those exemptions. Their contract stated that they didn’t have to pay drivers overtime for the following:
“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.”
I’ve bolded the problem here. Without the comma, this could be read two ways. Is packing for shipment and distribution one term or are they separate? In the current context, with the rest of the verbs being in gerund form (ending in “-ing”), distribution doesn’t fit the pattern. In the end, “packing for shipment or distribution of” was considered one term and the delivery drivers were owed some money.
As often as we don’t use “proper” grammar in our social lives, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important in certain contexts. Legal documentation is one, but I believe that any medium that regards clarity as important should also believe the same of grammar. Abandoning it out of ignorance or laziness opens oneself up to criticism at the very least or, like the Oakhurst Dairy Company, to a lost lawsuit.