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The $10 Million Comma Bookmark

 

Association professionals write all the time. Whether it is promotional copy, emails to members, committee minutes, newsletter articles, advocacy messages, press releases, or scripts they all are written by staff and often written quickly.

 The news last week should remind all of us of the importance of words and grammar.

 If you are not aware, a circuit court judge in Maine found in favor of dairy drivers requesting overtime pay.

As explained in the circuit judge's ruling, the state labor guidelines in question are the following, called Exemption F, which lists which work activities are not eligible for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

1.      Agricultural produce;

2.      Meat and fish product; and

3.      Perishable foods

If there was an Oxford comma after "packing for shipment" then neither "packing" nor "distribution" would be eligible to receive overtime pay. However, without it, "packing for shipment or distribution" count as one activity: packing. Distribution is not covered in the list of overtime exemptions. So they should get paid for it.

Of course, the state argued it did not mean to exclude "distribution" from that clause about overtime pay, but they didn't make that clear through such a poorly written sentence, as explained in the court's ruling.

"If the drivers engage only in distribution and not in any of the standalone activities that Exemption F covers ... the drivers fall outside of Exemption F's scope and thus within the protection of the Maine overtime law."

The new federal appeals court decision reversed a previous ruling for the case, which was first filed back in May 2014. And the new decision came down for just one reason, as the first line of the court ruling said. "For want of a comma, we have this case."

 I must admit that MSAE uses the AP style guide as our guideline for grammar rules and it does not require that Oxford comma at the end of the list. But this court case and the following example will change our practice.

As Grammarly notes, the sentences “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty” and “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty” are different. Without a comma, it looks like the parents in question are, in fact, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

MSAE has upcoming events that will help your writing skills, practices, and policies. Register for the Operations Conference where Jodi Wehling will discuss Social Media Polices.  Register for the Marketing & Communications Seminar where you will learn about digital writing and editing.  

I will be there to learn more and I hope you will be there to join me. As association professionals we need to be correct.

To read the article on the Maine milk-truck drivers go here.

 



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