Oxford Commas And Winning Cases

For want of a commaThe Oxford comma is subject to debate. It is the comma before the word “and” in a series. For example, “bread, eggs, and milk.” The comma between “eggs”and “and” is called the Oxford or serial comma. It separates all of the parts of a list.

Some style guides tell you to use it and some tell you not to. The Gregg Reference Manual calls for the Oxford comma (¶ 162a).

The thing I always remember that encouraged me to use the Oxford comma was an example of a will that left property to John, Joe and Sarah. If you are literal (as most lawyers are), you could say that the property was left half to John and half to Joe and Sarah to share. If you add the Oxford comma between “Joe” and “and,” there is no question that the property is to be divided into three parts—one for John, one for Joe, and one for Sarah.

In my opinion, it is one small piece of punctuation that can make a huge difference in the meaning and intent of what you are writing. In fact, as most of you may have heard, just last week, an appellate court ruled in a Maine labor dispute based on the Oxford comma. The case was about dairy drivers who argued that they were entitled to overtime pay for certain tasks. The company said they were not entitled to that overtime. The appeals court ruled that the guidelines on activities entitled the drivers to overtime pay because the guidelines were too ambiguous due to the lack of an Oxford comma.

Here is the law’s wording about activities NOT meriting 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.

Based on this language, is packing for shipment its own activity or is it packing for the distribution of the three things on the list? If an Oxford comma had separated “packing for shipment” and “or,” the meaning would have been much more clear. According to court documents, the drivers arguing for overtime actually distribute perishable food, but they do not pack it. That argument helped win the case.

The circuit judge said that had the language used the serial comma to mark off the last of the activities in the list, “then the exemption would clearly encompass an activity that the drivers perform.” Since the serial comma was not there to mark off the last of the activities, the judge obeyed the labor laws which, when ambiguous, are designed to benefit laborers and the case was settled.

“For want of a comma, we have this case,” the judge wrote.

But even worse than that is the fact that there are guidelines on how Maine lawmakers are to draw up their documents that do NOT include Oxford commas, so they followed the guidelines they were given. At least they followed the guidelines last week. This week, that guideline may have changed.

Grammar Giggle – Tucson . . . It’s Tucson

While I understand that some cities are difficult to pronounce and/or to spell, Tucson is the second largest populated city in Arizona, so our Phoenix news station should certainly know how to spell it. Pronounced “two saun,” if someone has problems remembering how to spell it, you could pronounce it “tuck sun” (but only in your head please) to help spell it right.

Tucson

Grammar Giggle – Advertising Matters

I pulled this out of my mailbox this weekend and noticed three errors before I even got back to my house. When the part of an advertisement intended to catch your eye has a glaring error, it really makes the company look bad. While they were consistent with their mistake, there was another anonymous placement of a comma.

Piano1

Piano2

Grammar Giggle-Painting and Grammar

I recently went to a painting party. I had a great time and ended up with a beautiful picture, which I’m still not convinced I actually painted. While on a break, I noticed their scrolling information about future classes on monitors throughout the facility. I saw these two errors. Even if your business is not grammar, you have people reading everything you have there and, perhaps, making judgments about your business based on that. A review of these slides should have caught the mistakes.

PaintPaint2

The State of Capitalizing “State”

StateUPDATE – PLEASE SEE CHANGES TO THIS POST AT The Updated State of Capitalizing State.

I need to clarify something in a blog post published in 2014 on Capitalization in Legal Documents. The capitalization of the word “state” is obviously very confusing depending on your preferred resource.

According to the Gregg Reference Manual, “state” should be capitalized:

  • When it is part of the full name of the state as in the State of Arizona
  • When the word it modifies in capitalized as in the State Corrections Director
  • When referring to the state as a party to litigation or a governmental actor as in “The State filed a Motion to Dismiss”

Most other sources I’ve found disagree with Gregg’s first example and say that “state” should not be capitalized when used as a proper noun but is capitalized when used in place of a particular state or referring to a specific governmental body:

  • The residents of the state of California have a reputation for being healthier than most.
  • The corporation, registered to do business in the state of California, is actually an Arizona corporation.

According to another favorite resource of attorneys, the Chicago Manual of Style, “where the government rather than the place is meant, the words state, city, and the like are usually capitalized.”

  • The State of Florida’s statutes regarding corporations are codified at Title XXXVI.

Another resource simplifies it as when you are using “state” as a common noun, you would not capitalize it:

  • She loved visiting the Northwestern states because she loved the rain.
  • The state of California has a beautiful coastline.

But do capitalize “state” if it is part of a proper name

  • I love visiting Washington State (as opposed to Washington, D.C.—although I love visiting there too).
  • I have visited New York City, but not the rest of New York State (capitalized to differentiate between New York City and New York State).

All resources agree that “state” should be capitalized when it is a party to litigation.

  • The response to the Motion to Dismiss was filed by the State yesterday.

The only comfort in all this confusion is that obviously everyone is confused. In fact, in many recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, “state” is capitalized in different instances, which may be a holdover from style from the 18th Century when many common nouns are capitalized.