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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And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

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