Missing comma helps dairy workers in labor dispute

This December 16, 2016 photo illustration taken in Washington, DC. shows the definition for the word "Surreal" in a copy of the Webster's Desktop Dictionary.
Donald Trump's upset win in the US presidential election astonished people so much that they rushed to the dictionary to look up the word everyone was using to describe the event: surreal. Indeed, Merriam-Webster's dictionary on Monday named surreal its Word of the Year 2016, the honor given to the word or term with the sharpest spike in look-ups over the previous year.
 / AFP / Karen BLEIER        (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Caption
This December 16, 2016 photo illustration taken in Washington, DC. shows the definition for the word "Surreal" in a copy of the Webster's Desktop Dictionary. Donald Trump's upset win in the US presidential election astonished people so much that they rushed to the dictionary to look up the word everyone was using to describe the event: surreal. Indeed, Merriam-Webster's dictionary on Monday named surreal its Word of the Year 2016, the honor given to the word or term with the sharpest spike in look-ups over the previous year. / AFP / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Credit: KAREN BLEIER

Credit: KAREN BLEIER

Never underestimate the influence of a comma.

In Maine, the Oxford comma helped a group of dairy drivers in a dispute with a company about overtime pay, The Guardian reported.

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The Oxford comma is used before the words “and” or “or” in a list of three or more things. Also known as the serial comma, its aficionados say it clarifies sentences in which things are listed.

The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a group of Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers, who sued the company's owners three years ago for unpaid overtime wages, the Bangor Daily News reported. The decision overturns an earlier U.S. District Court judgment in Oakhurst's favor, keeping alive the dispute over $10 million in overtime wages for 75 Oakhurst drivers.

"For want of a comma, we have this case," reads the opening line of First Circuit Judge David Barron's 30-page decision.

The Oxford comma has been debated for many years. Advocates argue the punctuation mark provides clarity and avoids confusion. Detractors say the conjunction serves as enough of a delineation between items, the Bangor Daily News reported.

According to Maine state law, the following activities do not count for overtime pay if they’re involved in “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.”

The drivers argued, due to a lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or distribution,” that the law refers to the single activity of “packing,” not to “packing” and “distribution” as two separate activities. As the drivers distribute — but do not pack — the goods, this would make them eligible for overtime pay.

Previously, a district court had ruled in the dairy company’s favor, who argued that the legislation “unambiguously” identified the two as separate activities exempt from overtime pay, the Bangor Daily News reported. But the appeals judge sided with the drivers.