From the department of "Why do grammar rules matter?"

Whenever your child, student, friend, spouse, or anyone else argues that grammar is going the way of the dodo, remind them of the case of O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy. The blog Quartz reported yesterday on the case, which has been mired in an issue of grammatical ambiguity. 

Here is the short version. There is a clause in Maine State Law regarding activities that do NOT qualify for overtime pay that reads:

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 truck drivers of Oakhurst Dairy contend that the phrase "packing for shipment or distribution of" refers to the "packing" as the action and "shipment or distribution" as a compound object of the preposition "for", thus qualifying drivers, who distribute, for overtime pay. The owners of the dairy contend that "distribution" is a separate action, an item in the list, and thus disqualifies the drivers.

Grammar lovers, don't fret...there's more!

The legal team for the drivers countered that, because the rest of the list contained gerund forms of the verbs (those ending in -ing) and "distribution" does not, it must be a part of the last item of the list rather than its own entry.

Needless to say, the issue is not clear. Ultimately, the 1st Circuit Court ruled in favor of the drivers, arguing that the law is meant to protect the worker. What part those judges' grammatical opinions played is not explicit, but we can only hope!

For a more in-depth look, and some great links to examples of Oxford comma ambiguity, check out the full article.

Jacob FeldmanComment