A comma rule goes to court

dont_take_my_oxford_comma_tshirtWhich is correct?:  men, women, and children.  Or men, women and children.

Some authorities, including many newspaper style sheets, say that you don’t need a comma after the last item in a series when it is preceded by a conjuction.  The reasoning is that the conjunction (e.g., and) separates the last item from the rest of the list.

Other authorities insist that you do need the comma before the conjunction.  This so-called “Oxford comma” is necessary because a conjunction joins words.  It makes no sense to have a conjunction both join and separate the items in a list.  (This is the rule that I have taught and live by.)

But now a court has weighed in, sort of.  Consider this phrase in a legal description of work rules that define what does not merit overtime pay:

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.

Look at the conjunction “or.”  Is “packing for shipment or distribution” one thing.  Or is it referring to two separate processes as part of the previous list?:  “packing for shipment, or distribution. . . .”?

“Packing for shipment or distribution” would not earn overtime pay. But just plain distribution–the guys who drive the trucks–would get overtime.  If there is an Oxford comma, however, “distribution” would be a separate category that would not get overtime and the truck drivers would be out of luck.

I would say that what governs the series is not so much whether or not there is a comma but another rule for series:  that they have grammatically parallel constructions.  This is a series of gerunds:  -ing added to a verb to make a noun.  We have eight of them:  processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marking, storing, packing.

At stake in the grammar and punctuation of this sentence is much money in overtime pay and back wages.  See how the judge ruled after the jump. [Read more…]