Eventually, All Pedantry Is Linguistic Pedantry

I'll bet the Rt Hon Chris Patten is required by his employment contract to use the Oxford comma.Brian Jordan/UPPA via ZUMA

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Yesterday a reader sent me an email asking, “Is there a more ‘you’ story in the news right now than this”? The story in question was a court decision that hinged on a Maine law that lacked an Oxford comma, but I got busy with other stuff and never read it. So here it is:

What ensued in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and in a 29-page court decision handed down on Monday, was an exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost a dairy company in Portland, Me., an estimated $10 million.

….The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one, but it was anything but for the truck drivers. Note the lack of Oxford comma — also known as the serial comma — in the following state law, which says overtime rules do not apply to:

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.

Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them?

Shockingly, this lack of an Oxford comma wasn’t just sloppiness. Apparently the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual is very clear that Oxford commas shouldn’t be used except in rare cases. What idiots! If there’s anyplace in the world that ought to embrace the Oxford comma, it’s the legislative process. Legislation is mostly impenetrable anyway, so even if you think the Oxford comma is ugly, who cares?

In any case, I’d like to point out that a surprising number of court cases hinge on “grammar pedantry.” Or syntax pedantry or dictionary pedantry or various other kinds of linguistic pedantry. Is a “penalty” enforced through the tax code a fine, which would be illegal, or a tax, which would be legal? One Supreme Court justice changed his mind on this crucial question in 2012, and saved Obamacare. Millions of people now have health insurance because of linguistic pedantry.

And before you ask, I am pleased to report that Mother Jones officially endorses the Oxford comma in its style guide. Everyone else should too.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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