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Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute (nytimes.com)
318 points by uyoakaoma on Mar 17, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 238 comments

The title of this HN post, like nearly every headline I've seen for this lawsuit, is misleading. The headlines makes it seem as if the company forgot an Oxford comma and is now losing millions as a result of having made a typographical error.

This is not the case. There is a statute that does not have a comma where one might be, and the litigants fought over whether the lack of a comma toward the end of a list ought to be read in light of the Oxford comma convention or not.

And it's actually more complicated, as the last item in the list is (potentially) compound, which makes it difficult to tell whether the "and" is to be attached to the final element alone, or to be a binding of the final element and previous elements.

Not that this its uncommon for articles to have misleading headlines, but I've been surprised at the extent to which nearly every article (save this one [1], by the ever-precise law professors at the Volokh Conspiracy) have misrepresented the case (or misunderstood it?) to make it seem like a company's typo led to a million dollar loss.

1: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/201...

The headline does not suggest or imply that lack of a comma in a document the company itself drafted is the basis for the overtime liability--only that the company may suffer the consequences.

When something is said to be "lacking", it implies that something should be there but isn't. The headline only introduces one actor — the company. In this context, there is only one party to put fault on for the "lack" of the comma, which is the company.

When you read the article, you see that the comma is not from a company document, but from a statute. So the "lack" is due to legislative drafting. But reading just the headline, how could one have imagined that the "lack" was due to an unnamed actor that drafted an unnamed statute?

While the implication I described is not the clearest implication, there is no way a reader could see this headline and have any clue that what really happened was:

Legislators drafted ambiguous statute and company's interpretation lost out

But that would make for a lousy headline, I suppose.

>When something is said to be "lacking", it implies that something should be there but isn't.

I don't consider "lacking" to have that implication. Especially not in the context of the Oxford comma, as lack of an Oxford comma is well known to be a source of ambiguity(1).

(1) https://theliteraryman.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/comma-com...

I initially guessed it was a tax law that got them. Never occurred to me that it might be something that the company did - typically they have lawyers who comb extra well for that kind of detail, even in a $1200/month lease. Lord knows what they do for multi-million contracts...

That's a fair point, but I think calling the headline "misleading" goes too far. My own reaction to reading the title was not to assume the subject was to blame for its own troubles: that's certainly a possibility, but it could just as well be some "lack" in the environment, as turned out to be the case. Perhaps it says more about the mindset of the reader than the headline in itself.

As the article illustrates, our languages are full of ambiguities. Human communication is limited in bandwidth and which features are preserved when we use lossy compression to shrink an article to a summary or title depends on priorities. For example, your suggestion:

> Legislators drafted ambiguous statute and company's interpretation lost out

emphasizes who is at fault, business or government, but loses what the dispute was (overtime pay), where the case was located (Maine), why there was ambiguity (the Oxford comma or lack thereof), and how much was at stake (millions of dollars). There's also something to be said about making it sound catchy (like the alliteration with "Maine" and "millions").

You could put all that back in, of course, but at the cost of more bandwidth consumption. And since everyone has different priorities (for example, someone else might want to know that the company was in the dairy business), there's always more to add until we reach the point where we're just reading the entire article.

So yeah, that's a good insight, but the top HN comment shouldn't be that the article's headline could be interpreted differently.

I am also surprised my comment is at the top of the page — I think this is partly due to the subthread on computational lawyering.

Good points, and thanks for your thoughtfulness. I agree that "misleading" could be a tad too emphatic, and I'd be open to other descriptors that might be more accurate.

I read the headline and figured it was ambiguity in the law. I think the headline is fine.

Impressive! The headline doesn't mention a law. Anyway, do you think the headline could be better?

"Law's Lack of ..." would maybe help, but I don't think it's necessary. I figured it was a law, or a regulation, because where else are the exact semantics of the written word so important that it could cost a company money?

A contract.

Fair point. But I still think it's a fine headline. Any ambiguity is quickly resolved in the article - headlines can't convey everything, and I think it says the most important part.

I think you meant:

Legislators drafted ambiguous statute, and company's interpretation lost out. ;)

Why on earth not to use programming language like constructs to write legal documents.

No compiler or anyone who can read code ever had any ambiguity reading simple code.

let overtime_allowed = true unless (action in [canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing_for (shipment or distribution)] of [Agricultural produce, Meat and fish products, Perishable foods])

Ethereum tried this, and a bug in the code lead to millions of dollars of value lost. They ended up hard-forking the code by changing it to match the intended outcome of the code, thus reversing the actual outcome of the execution of that code.

Eventually you'll have millions of lines of code, and within those millions of lines of code there will be a bug. It's no different than writing a legal contract in English. In both cases you can only do your best to make sure there is no misunderstanding or undefined behavior, but there is always a possibility that at some point someone will find a flaw and exploit it.

On the other hand, you could add tests; i.e. list case examples of outcomes and ensure that the laws meet those tests. That would be particularly helpful in capturing where new laws or changes to laws may create loopholes in other laws. As you say, code can have bugs; test code too; but at least this enforces a more rigorous syntax and saves a fortune in having lawyers debate the meaning of the language used.

Instead of encoding laws in a programming language, they could encode the test cases in a natural language. List a bunch of specific scenarios and be explicit about how the law should be interpreted for them. Every time a judge makes a ruling on an uncovered scenario it gets added to the list. This would take about 90% of the work out of being a lawyer and would make the legal system much more accessible.

Instead of encoding laws in a programming language, they could encode the test cases in a natural language. List a bunch of specific scenarios and be explicit about how the law should be interpreted for them. Every time a judge makes a ruling on an uncovered scenario it gets added to the list.

Isn't that how common law already works?

I think that was the joke, but I'm not 100% sure....

The tests are the lawsuits.

This is how some uniform laws are written. For example, each section of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is followed by commentary, often including example situations. States are encouraged by the UCC committee to incorporate the commentary as part of the official statutes. That makes them binding. Where states choose not to incorporate the commentary, judges usually treat them as strongly persuasive (if non-binding) authority.

The nice thing about the code commentary is that it's easier to append or modify the commentary than a code provision itself. When a provision is changed all the case law is effectively discarded, creating tremendous uncertainty. But changing the commentary is much less likely to break backward compatibility, so to speak.

Of course, the UCC is much more carefully written and reviewed than ad hoc state legislation. The commentary is a little like gilding the lily, relatively speaking.

Testing? With respect to what requirements?

Code is very often ambiguous with respect to the coder's intent. I've seen plenty of bugs because the coder inadvertently used `=` instead of `==` (or `==` instead of `===`) or left out parentheses in conditionals (`!w || x && y || z`).

The nice thing about code is that we can reveal bugs by executing the code and comparing the results with our expectations. Ideally, we do this with lots of testing. But even then, there's a hole in coverage and bugs make it into prod and cost someone lots of money. Which is basically what happened here.

This is just as easy to write in English without ambiguity:

the (i) canning, (ii) processing, (iii) preserving, (iv) freezing, (v) drying, (vi) marketing, (vii) storing, (viii) packing for shipment or (ix) distribution of: .....

If that were the case, following the "spirit of the law" would become basically moot and writing legal documents would become significantly more involved.

As a former freelancer, being able to write a simple business agreement and explain good faith to clients was empowering. None of my clients could have afforded to compensate me for hiring a lawyer to write in legalese, and would have been put off at such lengthy contracts despite the relatively straightforward projects.

I think people get the wrong impression about things too, because your story is definitely the more common one than the article. Of course, no one goes around writing articles about the peaceful and uneventful transfer of property or rights, so there's a skewed perception of the risks.

There's an argument to be made that it already is. It's called lawyerese (or just L), its programmers are highly regulated and highly paid.

What happened here is what happens when someone with insufficient skill tries to write an L program. The language has no such thing as linting or syntax checking, so while a faulty program will always run, it will return with unexpected or absurd results. L failures tend to make C's nasal demons look positively friendly by comparison.

There's no formal spec, it's literally centuries of ad-hoc patches and fixes and revisions piled onto one another.

> What happened here is what happens when someone with insufficient skill tries to write an L program. The language has no such thing as linting or syntax checking, so while a faulty program will always run, it will return with unexpected or absurd results. L failures tend to make C's nasal demons look positively friendly by comparison.

Worse than that, legal "code" has thousands of frequently used implementations (judges) and millions of one-time-use implementations (jurors), all of which may interpret it differently, both from each other and even from their own past versions. So if you thought writing JavaScript was bad because you have to deal with a half-dozen browser implementations and quirks...

Jurors don't interpret law and judges have a well-organised system for exception handling.

The legal system is massively reliable. By the time something reaches an appeal court, you're already into 5th 9 territory. You can live an entire life under it, moving through it, completely surrounded by it, and never have to see it or think about it.

> Jurors don't interpret law

They can and do. Quoting the Oregon constitution:

"In all criminal cases whatever, the jury shall have the right to determine the law, and the facts under the direction of the Court as to the law, and the right of new trial, as in civil cases."

Similar measures exist in other legal jurisdictions, though it isn't universal.

> judges have a well-organised system for exception handling

I didn't suggest they don't; I suggested that two different judges can interpret the law differently.

> under the direction of the Court as to the law

The point here is that jurors decide on facts according to law, as instructed by a judge[0]. The judge is also asked during trial to consider legal questions -- not the jurors.

> I suggested that two different judges can interpret the law differently.

I suggested that is why there is a hierarchy of courts, with the hardest and most important ones being delegated upwards via the process of appeal.

I am, of course, not a lawyer and this isn't legal advice. I did enjoy my time in law school though. The main thing I learned is that the law is a language that resembles but is not common English. Phrases like the one you quoted have to be read in the larger context of case law and statute law.

[0] http://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/resources...

That's not what happened in this case. The statute was written in accordance with the style guide, which made it ambiguous, which is why it went to court in the first place.

Using a programming language would avoid the scenario where there is more than one valid way to parse the same text. Usually, that's not the problem, though. Often times, the problem is that the correct parse is not the one people intended. Programming languages suffer from that too: http://lucumr.pocoo.org/2011/2/6/automatic-semicolon-inserti.... And even more commonly, the problem is ambiguity in semantics rather than ambiguity in syntax. What is a "fish product," for example?

fish product:

1. the result of multiplying fishes, as done by Jesus

2. a type of multiplication indicated by the fish symbol (see also: dot product, cross product)

3. a product intended for use by fish

4. the yearly economic value produced by fish (see also: gross national product)

Or a product made from fish (you may have a category, sales of fish and fish products). Or a product made by the fishes themselves, like corals are a product of marine life more generally.

Because law is written to allow for interpretation when unforeseen circumstances are encountered.

Usually with the aim to maintain consistency with the intent of the law. If the intent is ambiguous, you can't easily do that (as this case demonstrates). A formally defined Controlled Natural Language[0] would be ideal for situations like this. Arguably "Legalese" already is it's own form of CNL, albeit not very well controlled.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controlled_natural_language

I think you meant to allow for big payday for lawyers to argue about for a decade or so

Interesting idea, short googling lead me here: "Computational Law is a branch of Legal Informatics concerned with the mechanization of legal reasoning (whether done by humans or by computers).[1] It emphasizes explicit behavioral constraints and eschews implicit rules of conduct. Importantly, there is a commitment to a level of rigor in specifying laws that is sufficient to support entirely mechanical processing."


Once I figure out how to get my coworkers to stop checking in code with basic logic errors in it, I'll get right on that.


Ah yes, a classic. I always love coders who are so naive they think computers are deterministic and code can be perfected.

How much perfect code have you come across in your life?

Or even better, come up with punctuation that supports nesting and makes grouping clear. So you could literally reuse the language, but surround each term in the list in { ... } or something similar.

The law is not a programming language. Believing so is a common misconception amongst engineers, but representing it as such is likely (as I have said in this forum before) to lead to disappointment, frustration, anger, needless bickering, extended conflict, and vexatiously long, hard to read, and mostly unenforceable contracts.

Lojban-style formal legalese could work, but then it would threaten the legitimacy of contracts, since you'd need to understand law-specific distinctions in language to have a meeting of the minds.

If all you have is a compiler, everything looks like a line of code.

And we never ever write bugs, right?

The thing I don't understand is, if we take the last two elements in the list to be a compound, shouldn't there still be a conjunction before them? If I say you can choose between "French toast, cereal and bacon and eggs" that is very different from saying "French toast, cereal, bacon and eggs" regardless of whether the Oxford comma is used.

The fact that this law doesn't have a second conjunction should be definitive in showing how it was meant to be interpreted.

What they should have done is write "packing for distribution or distribution of". They forgot they were writing a law, not a book, and that clarity is more important than aesthetics. As it is, the sentence contains one more ambiguity, which is whether there's a distinction between shipment and distribution.

Yeah, the NYT article doesn't address the argument regarding asyndeton, which is the omission of a conjunction at the end of a list. See the Volokh Conspiracy article for a discussion of this.

How does the headline imply it was a typo made by the company? I did not get that impression at all.

I think most grammar nerds who know what an "Oxford comma" is would know that it's optional, and the kind of thing that can inadvertently change the meaning of a sentence. That's how I interpreted the headline, not that a typo was made. IMO the headline did a good job of condensing the issue into something I might be interested in reading without being misleading.

t. Anti-Oxford-Comma lobbyist

Alternate headline: workers to receive appropriate compensation following accurate interpretation of state law.

I have never fully understood the insistence that employers should be allowed to demand unpaid work from their employees.

Surely if your business is only viable with coerced labour then it isn't a viable business?

Or maybe if you need employees help to run it without pay them then they can be given a share of the business so they can benefit from the future returns that their efforts provide?

No one is demanding unpaid work. The question is whether they are owed 1.5x their salary or just their salary.

Overtime rules say that if you work overtime (and the definition of overtime varies by state), they have to pay you 1.5x your salary. In this case, they were only paying their regular salary.

No one was working for free.

Ah, gotcha. For some reason I always associated overtime with "unpaid". Probably because when I was a kid and had crappy jobs there would always be stuff that would need to be done at the start and end of every shift that outside my regular hours and therefore unpaid. I wasn't savvy enough to ask for pay, or to tell them where to stick it.

edit concrete example: Blockbuster Video. Shop closed at 11, the time I stopped getting paid. At that point I had to lock up and do accounts stuff, clean, and general admin (plugging the CC machine into the phone line so it could phone home and get lists of updated cards to watch for) etc. Would usually take about half an hour ISTR.

Yeah, what they were doing was flat out illegal.

The only time you are allowed to work unpaid overtime is if your job is considered an 'exempt' position. There are a number of rules that have to be met for a job to be considered expempt, including a high enough salary, autonomy over your work, and a few other rules as well.

Well, the article points out that the law specifically exempted this sort of work, except perhaps for the missing comma. I am a big fan of the Oxford comma, but in this instance saying that its absence means they are entitled to the overtime pay seems somewhat disingenuous, when the thing is taken in context. Truck driving (even those hourly jobs, as opposed to the much more common piece work jobs paid by the mile) is well-known for not paying overtime unless it is for a union shop and has been negotiated.

I was talking about the person I was replying to, who was asked to work off the clock at blockbuster video. That is always illegal, regardless of whether you are elible for 1.5x overtime salary or not.

Ah, sorry! Thought the comment had to do with article.

My mall employer did the same thing back in the day. I kept meticulous records, documented what was happening with my boss. I also kept the receipts that I got from the mall depository bank at 11PM.

When I was ready to leave, I filed a Department of Labor complaint and got a few thousand bucks.

I was fired from a job once after I refused to work any time off of the books.

They expected us to show up 10-15 minutes before the start of our shift to open and if we were on the later shift, they expected us to work 10-15 minutes after the end of the shift to close.

I refused to work for free.

I have never regretted losing that job.

You should have documented and reported to the labor board.

Yeah, and have the labor board give them a "stern talking to"?

Not worth your time, nor return on time invested.


Labor boards don't give a "stern talking to," they investigate violations of the law, issue fines, and even force companies to pay back wages, with interest, and other forms of compensation directly to employees. I just did a Google and this first thing that came up "Walt Disney Co. has agreed to provide $3.8 million in back wages to thousands of hotel- and timeshare-resort workers after the U.S. Labor Department investigated violations of minimum wage, overtime and record keeping rules."

I once reported a bank to the CPFB (not a labor board but similar) and it took 10 minutes to fill out an online form and they took care of investigating the issue for me. Ended up getting the $500 I was owed as well as an apology.

In Massachusetts, for example, the standard remedy for unpaid wages is triple damages.

Being that I refused to work off the books hours, I had no unpaid wages.

My co-workers might have gotten more out of it but since I got fired and they didn't, they should have been the ones to call.

The labor board would, among other things, force them to pay for the missing wages.

These labor boards tend to be pretty vocal about defending the rights of employees. However, employees don't always know to invoke their help, and they don't have unlimited resources.

A company not paying wages for time that employees have worked is a pretty open-and-shut case for them to handle.

GameStop is a company that had similar tactics. Had to close the registers, process and late trade-ins, and close/clean the store. Then they trusted me to take thousands of dollars to the bank and drop it in the slot. But all of it was unpaid.

Was it GameStop, or the store manager? I'd bet money the GameStop corporate HR people would have fired the guy on the spot if they heard about something like that. My own retail experience (big box office supply store) was so metrics driven I can absolutely imagine a scenario where the store manager tries to illegally cut work hours to make his store's numbers look better.

You were getting screwed. Most stores that close at say 9pm, still scheduling workers until 11pm to "Close" the store.

The worst part is it was probably just some shitty manager making 35k a year looking for a good year end review or a tiny bonus.

There is no way the corporate policy was unpaid overtime.

Those practices are largely illegal. There's been a number of successful cases prosecuting wage theft.

The name for this is wage theft.

It's just as bad as taking money out of an employee's paycheck, and way more corrosive to society than petty theft.

I fully believe that, much like persons registering as sex offenders are not allowed to go certain places, persons found to be involved in wage theft should be banned from running a business or being in any kind of managerial position whatsoever.

I'm sure that the definition of overtime varies by state, but I'm still pretty suspicious of any arrangements that cause time worked in excess of 40 hrs/wk not to receive time-and-a-half pay.

[EDIT:] That isn't even the worst thing here. Why should any hourly worker not get time-and-a-half, just because they're doing work that makes food less perishable? Is this some ancient tradition of screwing over the hourly workers who are least likely to have any other options?

No, it's just a recognition that if the employees go home for the day, the truck full of perishable goods will go bad, harming not just the company but also the Maine residents who were hoping to get a gallon of milk at a reasonable price. We can have a discussion about whether that's the best solution but first please try to understand Chesterton's fence.

Haha I haven't written any letters to the Maine legislature if that's what you're worried about.

If the food spoils, no one's going to force "Maine residents" to eat it. Rather, the person who hires and schedules workers will lose some money. Next time he'll do a better job of scheduling. Or maybe he'll go out of business, and his competitor will do a better job of scheduling. Since she's not such a skinflint, she'll pay both the fishermen and the packers more. Then she'll charge the customer more, but that's OK because the low-cost competitor just went out of business. If fish costs too much, then the government can subsidize it.

Agricultural subsidies and time-and-a-half are both more widely established Chestertonian traditions than this weird northeastern "screw the packers" thing some lobbyist dreamed up. Trust the market, dude.

I agree that unpaid work is foolish and it's all too common these days. I would counter the expectation of unpaid work with "I can't sit around doing nothing at work and expect to be paid." Really it's the same thing only in reverse.

I bet a large amount of companies are not viable due to dumping even more tasks on employees each year and also expecting unpaid work.

Even in just the last ten years it seems so much burden has shifted to lower rung employees. I can't imagine what business will expect ten years from now.

Demanding that other people work for you, to their expense and your betterment, is one of the most natural and ancient ideas in the world.

We fight against it, and have won certain protections in the laws of some countries, but that desire is permanently a part of the human psyche! Don't ever be surprised when you see it.

It's just that every job is designed and paid for differently. I think the company simply has a budget to offer as payment for a certain outcome.

Think about it from the opposite direction: a business owner could state I have never fully understood the insistence that employees get paid when they are using the restroom.

It would be insanity.

I attribute a lot of this to the unreasonable demands from some unions to create job definitions that are impractical ("driver cannot be the person who loads truck"). Fortunately, unions are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Unions can be useful or harmful depending on the details, but I genuinely think some kind of collective bargaining is essential to protect society as a whole. Entities with capital want to turn some of that capital into labor in order to generate more capital. Entities who have the supply of labor (populations, or skilled sub-groups) should be able to negotiate as a group if they choose, and get a better deal for themselves while still allowing a profit for the ones with the money. By disallowing the formation of labor unions, we tip the scales in favor of those who already have capital so that returns are maximized and worker gains are minimized. And when the economy grows, the gains go to the top, because workers can't collectively control the labor supply the way other entities control the supply of capital.

I'm glad the truckers got their money, but I don't really see one interpretation as more or less accurate than the other.

I've volunteered at Meals on Wheels before. What I'm usually told to do is unload shipments of donated food products (crate full of mangos, crate full of granola bars, crate full of apples, etc.) and pack them into shopping bags (e.g. 1 mango into each bag, one granola bar into each bag, two apples into each bag). The shopping bags are then be given out (distribution) or picked up by other volunteers who drive them to homes (shipping).

So I think both "packing for shipping" and "packing for distribution" do seem like reasonably separate things and the law may have been wanting to list both so that someone packing for distribution wasn't excluded like could have happened if the law just said "packing for shipping".

But if you take the law's meaning as targeting "packing for shipping" and "packing for distribution" then it no longer includes people who are just doing distribution and not packing (truckers).

We know the law meant the last two things as separate anyway, though, because there's no "or" before "packing", so the end there was two separate items and not one last item. So "distribution" was meant to be a separate item and not part of "packing for". Which is the opposite argument that didn't hold up in court.

> We know the law meant the last two things as separate anyway, though, because there's no "or"

The judgment by the appeals court covers that too. Interestingly they don't side one way or the other on what the text means, instead they simply conclude that it is ambiguous. Having concluded that, they follow a separate rule which says that if there is ambiguity, then the judgment should favour the employees.

This is Hacker news comments. Workers are just suckers who haven't figured out how to suckle from the VC teat.

Well, whether it was 'accurate' depends on whether the intention of the law writers was this liberal reading. Which is unclear; I expect if they actually meant `packing for (distribution or shipping)` there would be another or before packing:

> The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, OR packing for shipment or distribution of ...

as the last logical entry in a list almost always starts with a conjunction.

So the intention probably was to exclude distribution from extra pay, but the phrasing was lax enough to allow this liberal interpretation.

I don't think I've ever heard an impassioned argument against the Oxford Comma. I mean, I have no problem with it, but there seems to be a belief that this is a less filling/tastes great holy war, but really, omitting the serial comma is fairly archaic at this point. At least in my experience. Sometimes lists need one, sometimes they don't. At this point in the evolution of our written language that should be a fairly unambiguous proposition.

Major organizations' style guides disagree with you. At least in the USA, the Oxford comma is under real and constant assault by the defenders of imprecise and ambiguous grammar. Whenever someone inevitably takes the side of these atrocious style guides, I inevitably pull out my Oxford comma insult, "I listened to [Complaining person], a serial killer and a hapless fool. However, no one could tell if I was speaking to one person or three."

Your supposed slam dunk simply isn't. Take the same example modified twice: "I listened to [Complaining person], a serial killer, and a hapless fool. However, no one could tell if I was speaking to one person or two."

Note that the phrase "a serial killer" could reasonably be read as an aside describing the first party. There is no silver bullet.

"omitting the serial comma is fairly archaic at this point"

Wish that were true! But many news organization style guides condemn the Oxford comma, with sometimes disastrous results:


Is there any good argument for eschewing the extra comma when it clearly disambiguates the meaning of the sentence?

I can't think of one, but I also find it (slightly) difficult to believe that anyone smart enough to write an article would insist on ambiguity for no good reason...

EDIT: to disambiguate my own comment: with 'when' I meant 'in cases where leaving out the comma causes ambiguity'. Personally I try to prioritize clarity so sometimes I will use an extra comma, and sometimes I won't.

It can create ambiguity as well as remove it, depending on which terms can be appositives to other terms. Classic example:

"To my parents, Ayn Rand and God." (ambiguous without the comma)

"To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God." (ambiguous with the comma)

This is why I think style guides that disallow parenthetical comments are ridiculous. If Ayn Rand was really the author's mother, I think it would make far more sense to say:

"To my mother (Ayn Rand), and God."

If it looks a little ridiculous, it's because it makes more sense this way:

"To Ayn Rand (my mother), and God."

In my honest opinion, most style guides are dogmatic to the point of stupidity. The first time I saw a non-scientific style-guide I spent a week ruminating on why people hated clear meaning so much.

I have a similar question about endnotes. Why? If you want to share a single comment, why not use a footnote? Why make the reader flip to the back of your book to read a 4 word sentence?

I agree, for the most part, about style guides. But I wouldn't stick my Mom inside a pair of brackets (even if she were Ayn Rand). How about

  “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and to God.”
EDIT: Well, I guess that might still be misinterpreted. A semicolon makes the meaning clearer (as it so often does):

  “To my mother, Ayn Rand; and to God.”

That works, but I thought about it a bit, and I think we are all approaching the issue of book dedications from the wrong direction anyways. Book dedications are typically by themselves on a single page, so it seems like the best option would be to use whitespace to clarify meaning.

    I dedicate this book to:
    My mother, Ayn Rand
    And to God
This also gets at the heart of the matter, which is that a lot of style guides are taken from publications that are trying to squeeze as much text in to a given space as possible. If you are writing something where space is not at a premium, such as a law, or the dedication in a book, you should probably ignore suggestions that are meant to save space.

I think on some level writers are a bit like programmers, in the sense that writing a really clever Perl one-liner feels great, but if you have to go back and read what you've written later Python is probably a much better option.

Why not use an em dash?

"To my mother—Ayn Rand—and God."

Is this flat out wrong?

House style where I work (legal industry) is to set off appositive phrases with em dashes, and to use commas and semi-colons to indicate lists.

"set off appositive phrases with em dashes"

That is not English. Simple as that.

It is absolutely English—stylistic English—and while you may not appreciate the choice of style, it is just that—a choice—which may be made or not made without need of accusations that the result you don't prefer is "not English".

This is what I would do if I had to, but the real problem here is that we are trying to represent something that sounds fine when spoken aloud. It doesn't work as well in written form because if all the ambiguities pointed out above. So the better writer changes the sentence itself to read more fluently and not force the reader to parse something that is grammatically correct but ultimately clumsy. Maybe it needs to become two sentences to be clear, and that's ok.

> This is why I think style guides that disallow parenthetical comments are ridiculous

I've never seen a style guide that restricted the use of dashes for appositives, especially where commas are ambiguous. Parentheses aren't necessary, just write "To my mother—Ayn Rand—and God."

The best rule, of course, is that hard rules are dumb. Read your writing, have others read your writing, discuss ambiguities as they arise(,) and solve them. Keep in mind you may have to entirely re-word your sentence or paragraph to fix ambiguities.

Not a native speaker, but if Ayn Rand is your mother I'd blame the first comma for the ambiguity.

"To my mother Ayn Rand, and God."

But that's just grammatically wrong, in English.

Appositive clauses require a comma. Forgetting God, you can just look at the sentence "To my mother, Ayn Rand." We put a comma there because the object of the sentence is "mother," and then we're clarifying who "mother" is. We'd only omit the comma if "Mother Ayn Rand" were a noun phrase all by itself, like "Father John."

Similarly: "This is to my arch-nemesis, Ayn Rand, who always doubted me." The commas are necessary there for the same reason.

(How did Ayn Rand enter this discussion..?)

Appositive clauses like that often require a comma. [0] I'd argue that this one does, even though it makes the sentence more confusing as a whole.

[0] https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/596/01/

The problem isn't that there doesn't exist a sentence that maps onto only the meaning that Ayn Rand is your mother, it's that there exists a sentence which one could reasonably arrive at that maps on to both the meaning where Ayn Rand is your mother and the meaning where she's not.

If your mother is Ayn Rand, you've got bigger problems.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

I hate this example of supposed ambiguity when using the Oxford comma because it is grammatically dubious. It's not a proper parallel construction. The correct sentence is "To my mother, Ayn Rand, and to God." That example needs to be a scrubbed from Wikipedia.

I have yet to see a convincing example of ambiguity in the Oxford comma that doesn't rely on other grammar or style errors or similar shadiness. Given this I think that the anti-oxforders have essentially no case.

It's hardly grammatically dubious. It's the dominant style in spoken English, and pretty common in written English too.

And you can create the ambiguity just as easily without including a preposition.

AFAIK there's no rule saying you need to repeat the preposition before each item in a list; if there were, the sentence with the serial comma but no appositive would need to be "To my mother, to Ayn Rand, and to God."

The parallelism exists in order to deal with the aside, not because it's necessary for every element in the list. But putting aside that debate, here's the thing. You can't fix "to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God" by removing the comma. It's still ambiguous, indeed nonsensical. You fix it by adding "to". That is, the serial comma is not what's creating ambiguity, it's the omission of a word.

But the ambiguity in "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God" is fixed by adding a comma. That is, it's the missing comma that's the problem.

This is typical of the examples I've seen.

Typically, you would only repeat the preposition for emphasis/effect or if it varies for at least one element—e.g., for the latter, "I wrote to my mother, to Ayn Rand, and for God."

Just reorder it?

I like this solution, though the order might be meaningful. Perhaps the author wants to put his mother first.

if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas

Is this really less ambiguous?

"To God, Ayn Rand, and my mother."

Very much so.

The first example "to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God" could be reasonably and correctly interpreted two ways

1) this book is dedicated to two people, my mother (who is Ayn Rand), and God.

2) this book is dedicated to three people, my mother (who is not Ayn Rand), Ayn Rand, and God.

"To God, Ayn Rand, and my mother" Makes it clear the second interpretation is intended. You can't mistake my Ayn Rand for my mother.


The extra comma sometimes creates ambiguity. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma#Creating_ambiguit... for example.

> with sometimes disastrous results

There are other language like French without the Oxford comma and that does not lead to disastrous misunderstandings.

It is not like the English language, in general, does not have plenty of room for misinterpretation, even in every day speech. However if you look at the level of precision people need the Oxford coma for, you would have the impression you are in a project coin discussion for a small tweak in the java language causing compiler warnings.

The same grammar issue exists in, for example, Dutch. The Oxford comma however, does not exist there.

While technically incorrect, my daily use of English has led me to start using it in Dutch as well. It often clears up sentences which are ambiguous. Interestingly enough most Dutch people find those sentences perfectly normal because they are unaware the Oxford comma exists.

We don't have the "Oxford comma", but we do do lists with commas.

And it would be really confusing if we didn't.

There’s also German, where lists are done as

a, b, c and d.

Oxford comma will get marked as mistake in an essay you write in Germany, and you’ll loose points for it.

Same for Dutch. HOWEVER: why not use it? It often just does not make sense not to use it. If a sentence can be interpreted in an ambiguous way, I personally wouldn't really care.

Because if you know no one will ever use it, you also reduce ambiguity.

Then you can solve the remaining issues with using — instead.

Yea, it seems strictly better to include the comma. It can only make things _more_ claer, never less.

The law in question excluded "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of" agricultural products from the requirement for 1.5x overtime pay.

In a sane world where everyone used the Oxford comma, that sentence would be clear and the last item in the sequence would be "packing (for shipment or distribution)" and the drivers would be entitled to their overtime pay. But the Maine Legislature's drafting manual recommends omitting the Oxford comma so the above sentence is ambiguous. And it's really ambiguous because either meaning could really be what the Legislature intended.

The way I read it, the intended meaning is as if the comma was right after shipment. A list like that requires a conjunction before the last element. "Or" serves that function. If "or" was merely internal to the final item, it would be grammatically incorrect.

Here is the full context, with the only grammatically correct place to put the comma:

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.

edit: fixed formatting

Yeah. Actually, the court noted this as well:

> the drivers’ textual points do not account for what seems to us to be Oakhurst’s strongest textual rejoinder: no conjunction precedes “packing.” Rather, the only conjunction in the exemption — “or” — appears before “distribution.” And so, on the drivers’ reading, the list is strangely stingy when it comes to conjunctions, as it fails to use one to mark off the last listed activity.

To me, that seems really conclusive. I'm a little bit surprised that the court still thought the sentence was ambiguous.

I agree, this is different from the classic Oxford comma ambiguities and I'm surprised more people aren't pointing this out.

That being said, omitting the conjunction is a thing that people actually do (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asyndeton), not just a grammatical error. Were I making legal arguments on this case, I would research whether this kind of asyndeton was a common construction in Maine state law.

I also read it the way you do. But interestingly, there is what appears to be an Oxford _semicolon_ between items (2) and (3). The inclusion of an Oxford delimiter in one list and its exclusion in another list would seem inconsistent. If anything, the second list is the one that does not need the extra punctuation because the items of that second list are also delimited by newlines and the enumeration. Very weird indeed.

That was my reaction as well. If the other meaning was intended, I think the sentence would be better written "...marketing, storing, or packing for shipment or distribution...". In that case, I think the comma after "storing" is necessary to avoid ambiguity because there are two "or" conjunctions, but at least the intended meaning is a correct interpretation. That said, I agree with other commenters that if your meaning relies so fundamentally on such a small grammatical point, you might do better using a different construction altogether.

> In a sane world where everyone used the Oxford comma ...

Serial commas can also create ambiguity when they resemble appositives[1]. There’s no single rule that always only ever eliminates ambiguity for these things besides treating English like math and flooding it with parentheses.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma#Creating_ambiguit...

Hmmm... I vote for writing English in direct AST syntax to avoid these ambiguities.

If only I knew for sure which of the entries on the wikipedia disambiguation page for ‘AST’[1] you were talking about! /s

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AST

I actually tend to use curly braces as 'ambiguity braces', when a term is ambiguous. They've met with some amount of success.

Would you show an example?

  a, b, c, or d

  a, b, {c or d}

  a, b, c or {d}

  a, {b or c}, d

(agree (with (I you)))

Shouldn't it be: (agree I (with you))?

I would write it (agree I you) since it is similar to a conjunction - the "with" is implied.

Beats me, English grammar isn't my strong suit.

Quite true in general but I'd hope that legal documents would tend to avoid appositives since they tend to introduce confusion and legalese isn't known for prizing brevity.

Is there a situation where it resembles an appositive which isn't a matter of verifiable fact? In the example "To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God" a court could go check and see if the speaker's mother is in fact Ayn Rand. Whereas in this court case, the ambiguity is an unresolvable one.

Devil's Advocate: In a sane world where nobody uses the Oxford comma, that sentence would be equally as clear.

The other meaning would have needed to be written differently, in an Oxford commaless world:

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

/End Devil's Advocate

Since the law says not to use an Oxford comma, writing the rule should take that into consideration. I'd rule in favor of the workers because distribution is clearly not included in the Oxford commaless list which is what the drafting guidelines say to do.

I actually see no ambiguity in this case because the law should have been written without the Oxford comma in mind at all.

In a sane world there are no special interest group exemptions from overtime pay. What the hell.

Not being a native english speaker, I'm probably wrong, but it seems clear to me that were the sense of this sentence to be "...storing, distribution of (...), or packing for shipment", "distributing" would have been used rather than distribution.

The homeoteleuton would have been ruined by using storage and preservation, hence it must contain meaning.

This was in fact a major point of the drivers' case:

>The drivers note that each of the terms in Exemption F that indisputably names an exempt activity — “canning, processing, preserving,” and so forth on through “packing” — is a gerund. By, contrast, “distribution” is not. And neither is “shipment.” In fact, those are the only non-gerund nouns in the exemption, other than the ones that name various foods.

[0] http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca1/16-...

That sounds like a pretty good point. But when I try saying "distributing of" out loud, it sounds wrong, as a native speaker. I think converting that to "distribution of" is just one of those natural quirks that isn't a written rule but is very common anyway.

I believe you could drop the "of" in this case and it would make more sense. The final section could read "packing for shipment or distributing:", which clearly shows the separation of the activities.

And it's really ambiguous because either meaning could really be what the Legislature intended.

Initially, I was going to say that they should evaluate the merits of the law based on the spirit of the law. But you are right, it really could go either way.

> they should evaluate the merits of the law based on the spirit of the law

Some laws say "if there's an ambiguity, then take the interpretation that's most favourable to $PARTY". e.g. some consumer protection laws say ambiguity in prewritten sales contracts must be interpreted in the customers favour. This recognises the power imbalance between joe soap and a megacorp, and tries to address that.

I mean, in a sane world, there simply wouldn't be a need for this discussion, because there wouldn't be exemptions for overtime pay.

My question is, what makes the canning industry so unique and special that it's deserving of exemptions from fair pay?

The work is seasonal and not necessarily predictable on a daily basis. So the overtime is part of a short work stint that the employee knows is coming when they are hired for the temporary job rather than the way the business is organized to work all of the time.

I guess I don't see why that deserves an exception, but I imagine that is where they are coming from.

Not even that -- the fact that legislators actually wrote this as a law is interesting. There is likely a historical reason or something unique about that industry that prompted this.

Probable historical reason: the industry had money and therefore political power, and its workers were poor immigrants therefore without political power.

You see this a lot when filing your taxes with software.

"Are you part of a railroad worker's retirement plan that started before 1975? Do you have income from a farm that exported to Europe or northern Mexico?"

When crop X comes in from the field / comes in on the ship, you only have so much time to get it cleaned, cooked, and canned.

The law seems archaic when applied to the year-round, forced-fertilization, industrialized dairy industry.

It's not just canning, but basically the packing and distribution of food from producers to consumers. It's possible that, during past time of higher inflation, the government wanted to avoid higher costs in this area.

It is perfectly clear here that "distribution" is a separate list element, set off by the final disjunction "or":

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

The pattern being: A, B, C, D or E.

This does not change even if we add a spurious comma after D:

A, B, C, D, or E.

D and E are still separately listed items.

Quite simply, D or E cannot be a single list item without being preceded by some conjunction.

If the intended meaning were "packing (for shipment or distribution)" to the exclusion of "distribution", then the conjunction "and" or "or" would be required before that entire phrase:

A, B, C, D or E for X or Y.

Here the entire phrase E for X or Y (such as packing for shipment or distribution) is now the last list item (and, again, that is clear whether or not we add a spurious comma after D).

The "or" in (for shipment or distribution) belongs to this inner phrase and therefore cannot serve as the delimiting conjunction of the last list item; another delimiter is required.

Thus, the insertion of the comma makes no difference. The alternative interpretation is hard to justify, because it is based on the claim that a meaning-altering conjunction is missing, even though the existing text happens to be grammatical.

In almost every case I see people arguing for an Oxford comma I see a sentence that should be broken up or restructured to make it less ambiguous. A sentence where not noticing a comma can drastically alter it's meaning (especially when it's a losing battle to make everyone understand the Oxford comma) is not a good sentence.

Give an example that doesn't use parentheses or a bulleted list.

It seems clear to me that if you are listing multiple items in a sentence, a comma should separate every item in the list.

Alternatively, we could use the semi-colon for lists. This is what I do sometimes at work, especially when the items in the list may contain commas.

Meh. DRY. The conjunction serves the exact same purpose as the comma, as well as signalling the end of the list. Any construction that is made ambiguously appositive by the absence of an Oxford comma has a parallel construction that is made ambiguous by the presence of an Oxford comma.

>Give an example that doesn't use parentheses or a bulleted list.

Why the arbitrary restriction on bulleted lists? Situations like this seem ideally suited for a simple list.

>Why the arbitrary restriction on bulleted lists? Situations like this seem ideally suited for a simple list.

Exactly. Laws are generally drafted as lists of clauses anyway.

Because prose doesn't use bulleted lists.

The law in question has a numbered list.

In this example, what does "for shipment" add to the meaning? I figure omitting that would make this far clearer.

What do you use for lists of lists?

Really? On the contrary, I see sentences all the time that are desperately in need of an Oxford comma. Example: "The three target demographic groups for the new product are fruit and vegetable lovers, vegan and paleo dieters, and reduced-meat health and fitness individuals." This sort of thing pops up in work documents frequently.

Any time you have categories that themselves include more than one item, an Oxford comma is really helpful.

How about this? "The three target demographic groups for the new product are 1) fruit and vegetable lovers 2) vegan and paleo dieters and 3) reduced-meat health and fitness individuals." Alternatively define a shorter name for each group for reuse. Not everyone even understands the Oxford comma either.

You've now interjected numbers in an otherwise word-only sentence, which is generally a no-no. You might as well just go for a bulleted list at that point since you're breaking the grammatical flow. But there are plenty of other examples besides mine where the entire sentence meaning changes based on that comma. For example, "Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective."

As another point, for me the Oxford comma makes reading generally easier because it's clear where a list ends. If I see ", and" then I know what follows is the last item without having to read ahead and figure out if there's more to come.

You touch on a good point, but this isn't about a good sentence. This is about a law. Laws aren't meant to be good sentences. They are meant to be clear and exacting regardless of style. They must also be consistant with other laws, most all of which were written long ago by very different hands. Exacting and consistant punctuation matters far more than recent development in the use of commas. If adding one makes a law more clear, you add it regardless of modern trends.

Agreed. Such semantic fragility indicates a design flaw, IMO.

> alter it is meaning

This is an instance of Muphry's law, which states that when berating others for editing or spelling mistakes, one is bound to commit a similar or worse offence. There are several other occurrences in this thread.

Avoiding the Oxford comma is the JavaScript automatic semicolon insertion of English grammar.

Each has odd exceptions that have to be thought about, and each is polarizing.

In both cases I really wonder: why the insistence on adding to cognitive load?

"I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Now, if you make it singular, it's the presence of an Oxford comma that makes it ambiguous:

"I'd like to thank my mother, Ayn Rand, and God"


"I'd like to thank my mother, Ayn Rand and God"

As long as English uses commas for both apposition and list separation, there will always be ambiguity no matter which comma convention is used.

Seems like a bit of a tortured example to me, is the order really important?

"I'd like to thank God, and my mother, Ayn Rand, ..."

> As long as English uses commas for both apposition and list separation

Then don't, if it's a concern.

"I'd like to thank my mother (Ayn Rand) and God ..."

A lack of an Oxford comma is always an ambiguity. The reverse 'problem' - which I've never encountered 'in the wild' - can be dealt with in so many ways.

> A lack of an Oxford comma is always an ambiguity.

Not true. The example given ("I'd like to thank my mother, Ayn Rand and God") lacks a serial comma yet is unambiguously a list of three items.

I use the serial comma.

I'd say "I'd like to thank my mother Ayn Rand, and God" in that case.

I place commas where I'd pause in speech. In that situation, I wouldn't pause between "mother" and "Ayn", so no comma goes there. In order to group "mother" and "Ayn Rand" together, a comma follows.

I don't understand how the first sentence is at all ambiguous. It actually makes more sense to me than the second.

Since commas are used for apposition, it's unclear whether the author's mother is Ayn Rand.

I guess I'm out of the loop then, because I see no other meaning for the first comma when the second one is there.

To me it's the second sentence where the commas meaning is ambiguous. Almost like the writer is confused and two entities are its singular "mother."

Unless you're implying that Ayn Rand is God (I wouldn't be surprised on HN) I read the upper example as using parenthetical commas, with the result that they parse to the same ambiguity.

Why do you have that first comma.

"I'd like to thank my mother Ayn Rand, and God" is clearer.

The first comma is more-or-less required. It either means, "my mother, who is ayn rand", or it is a serial comma to indicate three people, the speaker's mother, ayn rand and god.

There is no construction where there's no comma between 'mother' and 'ayn' AFAIK, it's just either appositive or serial.

One could reconstruct the sentence: I would like to thank my mother (who is ayn rand), and god. I would like to thank god and my mother, ayn rand. The problem isn't that other, less-ambiguous constructions exist, it is that the construction as written is ambiguous but grammatically correct. It's an operator overloading issue.

Yes, but how do you handle the case where your mother is not Ayn Rand and you want to thank three individuals?

"I'd like to thank my mother, to thank Ayn Rand, and to thank God."

Following the conventions of programming languages with mandatory bounds checking (and thus have to keep track of the array size at all times):

"I'd like to thank three people: my mother, Ayn Rand, and God."

That's not correct, as both "mother" and "Ayn Rand" are items in a list and need to be separated by a comma.

There should be an "or" before the word "packing" if "packing for shipment or distribution" is a single phrase (rather than two alternatives). The Oxford Comma debate is a sideshow. It's all about where you find the "or", which indicates the last choice.

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

More telling is the difference between the verbs ending in "ing" and those not.

canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, and packing are the actions.

shipment and distribution relate to packing.

If distribution was supposed to be a separate activity, they would have used "distributing of" instead of "distribution of".

It's kind of amazing that we even write laws this way anymore. There isn't much to gain from freely allowing legislators to use the English language to dictate our system of rules. I'm sure there are much clearer templates that everyone should follow.

Yes, law should be written like code. A "tree of nested assertions" or whatever you call it.

Law is code. The hardware is masses of people.

Couldn't they just have looked up the intended meaning of the law? I mean laws or not made by just writing down the law in its final form, there are designs, discussions, and drafts. Wouldn't it be likely that there are documents showing the intended meaning more clearly, for example by listing the exceptions as bullet points? In my opinion that would provide a way better argument to settle the issue one way or another than appealing to grammar rules and style guides.

Ignoring the comma issue, it still seems poorly worded.

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

Lets group related activities based on what workers might be doing/where they might be doing it.

If the law intended to exclude truck drivers from overtime, our groups could be:

- Canning, Processing, Preserving, Freezing, Drying (processing facility?)

- Marketing (?)

- Storing, Packing for Shipment (Warehouse)

- Distribution (On the road)

Why is one sentence trying to define rules for all those groups?

I think there is a legal principle that takes all enumerations as closed sets.

You may enumerate a set as an example of a class. You might say, "animals, such as lions, tigers and bears." If you wrote that as legalese, only lions, tigers, and bears would be considered "animals" for the purpose of the chapter.

Legalese has to be really specific with respect to lists, otherwise clever lawyers can argue their way around the holes in whatever manner best benefits their client. If you're going to specify any sub-activity of the industry in question, you have to specify all of them that you with to include for the purposes of the law.

I would say that distribution includes shipment, so "packing for shipment or distribution" is unnecessarily redundant. As such, I would prefer the interpretation of "packing for shipment, or distribution". Just as you wouldn't say "lions, tigers, tigers, and bears" you would never say "shipment or distribution" as its own clause. Distribution is shipment.

So to make it unambiguous, you could use stricter redundancy aversion: "packing for shipment or shipment".

The case was decided on equity, not grammar. What the comma style did was give the company a specious argument to make.

IANAL, but if this verdict were based on equity it would have helped out everybody on cannery row, not just the drivers.

Well, "equity"

Perhaps they should adopt programming language like syntax for laws. eg You will be jailed for [kill, hurt, steal].

Define 'kill'. What about self-defense, soldier in time of war, accidental, negligence? You're going to need an overly large switch statement to decide, and that's just one crime.

If laws were codified in a machine-friendly format, automatic code analysis could alert lawmakers and the public to ambiguity, conflicts, redundancy, unused code, opportunities for optimization and verbosity.

JFK and Stalin are still the best proponents for using the Oxford comma: http://www.verbicidemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/...

There are two types of people this world: those who use oxford commas, those who don't and those who should.

This should totally be a case study in grammar lessons. This comma could cost you millions kids, pay attention!

This comma could cost you millions kids. Pay attention! FTFY

Well if we're gonna be pedantic let's not forget the vocative comma:

"This comma could cost you millions, kids." :-)

I stand corrected.

Instead of discussing a grammar issue, why not go back to the intent of the law and apply it as... intended? What were the lawmakers thinking when they wrote that law? Are they still around? Are there any notes or recorded sessions discussing this?

Do we expect the truckers to do said research in order to know how to interpret the law? Of course not. The whole point is that the law should be explicit and unambiguous as written.

It would be sufficient if the court does it.

I wonder how Maine is able to exempt works from overtime, wouldn't that contradict federal overtime laws?


The federal law has lots of exemptions that apply to various hourly workers.

Oh, I thought the only exemption was for the usual adminstrative/white collar type work:


The article asks:

> 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?

I'd say it does both. It exempts workers who package for shipment AND workers who distribute.

Discuss... :-)

Could be! But the fact it is ambiguous means that it's bad law and effectively that's what the decision was: it's a reasonable interpretation based on the language used so they win.

Are shipment and distribution fundamentally different? Seem like synonyms to me and thus the lack of comma ought not matter because: "package for shipment -- or distribution." I guess my question is how packing would be materially different for shipment or distribution.

Since it seems analogous, a reasonably intelligent person could assume that the sentence could read, "packing for shipment or shipment" that implies that shipment is a separate activity while packing for shipment is another activity. -- since shipping is really a subset of distribution actions.

My question is why they sued -- clarity should have been sought before engaging in the work. It wasn't like these guys were unaware of the law. They chose to read it in the most advantageous way rather than obtaining clarity before working.

What person goes and reads all applicable laws before taking a job? You've got federal/state/local laws to sift through.

And who's to say that a company can't hire lawyers to comb through old laws looking for loopholes to screw over workers?

packaging for shipment is a different thing than distribution. Packaging for shipment might be the same thing as packaging for distribution.

As a freelance writer, this is sort of cool to me.

"The pen is mightier than the sword" and all that. A little comma -- or lack thereof -- moves millions of dollars in one direction or the other.

Food for thought.

They could have done so much more with that first sentence. Example: "An appeals court ruling on Monday was a victory for truck drivers, punctuation pedants and nazis"

Of possible relevance: The New York Times, per its internal style guide, eschews the Oxford Comma.

I smell a possible revolt on the part of Mr. Victor.

Meanwhile a complete jerk move did cost Maine university employees thousands of dollars in unpaid wages over the course of a decade.

Why is everyone discussing the grammar and no one questioning why laws have such silly exceptions? Why should there be an exception for the packaging of perishable goods? It is not like the goods cannot be packaged if the workers are paid extra for working over-time. And it is not like a well planned logistics chain should necessarilly be forced to have workers working overtime. So really, this exception is just a gift to a specific industry.

The longstanding question posed by Vampire Weekend has finally been answered: Oakhurst Dairy cares.

Or: why AI is a long way to understand natural languages.

The sheer amount of misused punctuation in this comments section seems to indicate a systematic problem.

I believe you mean systemic.

Muphry's Law.

Also posted to HN as: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13886467 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13879156

For me the lesson here is "use unambigious language" rather than "{always|never} use an Oxford comma".

The 29-page decision shows that the "Oxford comma" is only part of the court's interpretation of the law, and shows that the court examined several paths to reach an interpretation.


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