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November 22, 2017
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Organisation, spelling, and punctuation count!

By Liliana Palermo
For the Herald

How One Missing Oxford Comma Changed an Entire Legal Decision

Punctuation matters, especially in legal documents

For all (1) the Facebook posts that fail to use correct punctuation, and for all the grammar geeks (2) who insist on pointing out the errors: there's compelling new evidence that, well, the geeks are right.

A labour dispute in Maine was just decided based entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma. Before we delve into (3) the case, though, let's examine the Oxford comma. Also known as the serial comma, this punctuation mark is the final comma in a list of things. For example, in the phrase “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” the missing comma before "and" gives the author a legendary set of parents, indicating the writer is the offspring of those two individuals. It's easy to see how an Oxford comma can separate specific items in a list. Proponents of its use say that, when listing things in writing, a comma before the last item is essential. It separates the sentence “He ate dessert, fries, and ham” from “He ate dessert, fries and ham.” Opponents say that it’s redundant, aesthetically displeasing, and potentially more ambiguous.

The comma is called the Oxford comma because it is required by the Oxford University Press style guidelines. There are other, equally respected and used style guides, like the Associated Press style guide, which prohibit the use of a serial comma. Examples of both exist in media, with news sources preferring AP style and other publications relying on the Oxford comma. There's also plenty of passionate debate about the merits of each style, elevating the comma to celebrity status among grammarians and the like.

Recently, the comma was the centre of a labour dispute between drivers and the company for whom they worked. While the drivers insisted they deserved overtime pay for delivering dairy products, the company disagreed, pointing instead to a state law that spelled out (4) work activities that did not lead to overtime pay:

The canning (5), 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 answer, the judge determined, existed in the first sentence (6). Without an Oxford comma before the word "or," it could be interpreted to mean that, because the drivers weren't packing items intended either for shipment or distribution, then they could be paid overtime. But with the comma? Then the sentence would have contained separate activities: “packing for shipment” would have been its own distinct activity, as would “distribution” have been. With packing and distribution listed as two separate things that didn't warrant (7) overtime, the dairy drivers’ case would have been lost.

But, because of the lack of a comma, it wasn't. When labour laws are unclear, the justice system is designed to benefit the labourers, said the judge, who ruled (8) in favour of the dairy-drivers. “For want (9) of a comma, we have this case,” the judge wrote in a statement.

Besides, in an impressively geeky retort, the drivers responded that all the other exempted activities were listed as gerunds, words ending with “-ing”: Canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing. The word “distribution,” they argued, was therefore not intended to be one of the items in the list.

The profoundly nerdy ruling is also a win for anyone who dogmatically defends the serial comma.

Adapted from a story by Laurie L Dove, How Stuff Works and Thu-Huong Ha, Quartz

 

 

“for all” (1)

If you are not familiar with some of the different (sometimes contrary) meanings of the same item, you may find the first sentence in the article confusing. The first use of “for” is to indicate purpose, intention, as in “to run for exercise,” “medicine for the old.” The addition to “all” in the phrase gives it a completely contrary sense, which is “despite.” When you use this expression, you indicate that the thing mentioned does not affect or contradict the truth of what you are saying. For all his lack of experience, he was given the position right away.

“grammar geeks” (2)

A geek is someone who is intelligent but not popular. The term is usually associated with the technological field. When the word is, as is the case of the article, modified by a noun, “geek” refers to a person who is very interested in that particular subject, and usually knows a lot about it.

“delve into” (3)

When you delve into something – in its literal sense – you dig as if with a spade. She delved into her handbag for her keys. When you use the expression figuratively, you examine something carefully in order to get more information about it. It is sometimes not good to delve into your past.

“spelled out” (4)

The verb “spell,” whose first meaning is to read a word letter by letter in the correct order, is combined with “out” to mean “to make clear, distinct; to clarify in detail. They are calling a meeting to spell out the next steps in the strategies. When you use it informally, it shows impatience at somebody’s not understanding something, as in Do I really have to spell out everything for you?

“canning” (5)

Canning is the act of preserving cooked food by putting them in cans or jars.

“sentence” (6)

The intended play on words, here, is based on the two senses of the word “sentence,” the alternative to the literal meaning in the text plus the one that refers to the punishment given by a judge in a court to a person who has been found guilty. When the judge pronounced sentence, the victim felt relieved.

“warrant” (7)

If something warrants a particular action, it makes the action appropriate and you guarantee that it will happen, as in to warrant a person good treatment, to warrant safe and timely delivery.

“ruled” (8)

One of the senses of the verb “to rule” is “to give an official decision.” Only the Supreme Court can rule on this point.

“for want” (9)

The noun “want” in this expression is synonymous with “lack” or “deficiency.” For want of anything better to do, I read the magazines on the coffee table / He suffers from a want of common sense. A related sense to “lack” and “deficiency” is “need” as a verb, as in This meat wants a bit of salt, don’t you think? / He was in want of a good shave.

 

We thank you for reading

There are certain acts that are performed in particular situations, with the requirements of certain circumstances that make the act valid. It seems like fun if kids are playing cops and robbers and, when the goodies win – in children’s play they more often than not do – the cops arrest the criminals and they are, consequently, put in jail and given a sentence. Language is key in all these situations: “you are arrested,” “OK, we confess,” “I sentence you to life imprisonment.”

In real life, people in authority do certain acts by using the language. Such is the case of the judge in the article, who “sentenced” the company to pay the workers for the extra hours. Or that of a priest “declaring” a man and a woman “husband and wife.” Or that of a police officer “ordering” a motorist to pull up down the road. There are certain conditions that need to be met for these acts to occur and there should be a person in authority pronouncing them. The verbs that are used to do things with language are called performative verbs: they convey the kind of act that is being carried out; their action is accomplished simply by saying the verb.

There is a wider array of performative verbs, which are used in everyday life, and require no hierarchy or other conditions to carry out the act. The simple sentence “I apologise” said by any individual to another performs an act at the same time it is uttered. Other verbs of the kind are promise, invite, apologise, predict, request, warn, insist, forbid, state, recommend, demand thank, accept, agree, congratulate, declare, deny, forgive, guarantee, order, refuse, request, suggest, thank. This is but a brief list of the thousands of more specific items of this type.

However, you may use these verbs in their non-performative sense, as when you, for instance, say “I recommend it” as an answer to “What do you usually do if you like a movie very much?” In this case, the sentence just states a routine action and nobody is performing the act of “recommending” anything.

On the other hand, one very often realises the action described by performative verbs by using other language than the verb in question: “I’m sorry I never called back” is as valid an apology. And “OK, it was me who told her the secret” is as good a confession, even without the mention of the verb.

I suggest you research a little more on this interesting aspect of the language. I promise you’ll greatly improve your communication skills just by canning these verbs for later performative use – be it when in position of authority or for the simple joy of delving into the fine intricacies of the language. In the worst of cases, you won’t be caught unawares in legal matters for simple want of interpretation of performative verbs, lexical skill, or intended use.

 

@lilipalermo

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