Does Punctuation Matter?

Oakhurst Dairy, based in Portland, Maine found itself in a US$10 million lawsuit with milk-truck drivers due to a punctuation mark in a contract. 

At issue was the missing serial comma after “packing for shipment” in the following clause: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…perishable foods”

The missing comma, which would have separated “packing for shipment” and “distribution” into distinct activities, would have qualified both activities as exempt from overtime pay. 

US Congress’s legislative drafting rules advocate using serial commas, “to prevent any misreading that the last item is part of the preceding one”.  However, Maine’s legislature is in the minority of seven US American states which either do not require serial commas or expressly prohibit them.

The appellate judge was a serial comma advocate, suggesting, “We would be remiss not to note the clarifying virtues of serial commas that other jurisdictions recognize”.

What do you think?

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