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Oxford Comma Dispute Is Settled as Maine Drivers Get $5M (nytimes.com)
106 points by okket 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments

Since the paragraph in question establishes two sets, why explicitly enumerate one set, while relying on inline punctuation for another? This inconsistency suggests that the two kinds of enumerations aren't similar; yet they are. Their intersections define cases where the provision does or does not apply. (EDIT: the accurate term for this is cartesian product.)

Explicit is better than implicit, even when the end result is more wordy.

There's dozens of ways to rephrase this, but here's one:

The overtime provision of this section does not apply in cases when any of the hereby enumerated activities are done to any of the hereby enumerated categories of items.

The activities are:

(1) canning; (2) processing; (3) preserving; (4) freezing; (5) drying; (6) marketing; (7) storing; (8) packing for shipment; (9) distributing.

The categories of items are:

(1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; (3) Perishable foods.

Furthermore, there's an entire other line in this same paragraph about egg processing facilities above a certain size. This should be broken out elsewhere.

Question: the Wikipedia article on this subject [1] gives this example as a case where including the comma would create ambiguity:

  To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God
The ambiguity is that dedication could be read as a dedication to two entities:

  To <my mother, Ayn Rand>, and <God>
or to three entities:

  To <my mother>, <Ayn Rand>, and <God>
I agree with that.

However, isn't it also ambiguous WITHOUT the Oxford comma?

It can be to three entities, same as with the comma:

  To <my mother>, <Ayn Rand> and <God>
but it could also be taken as to one entity:

  To <my mother>, <Ayn Rand and God>
The Wikipedia page (at the moment) does not consider the one entity interpretation.

It seems to me that the ambiguity in this comes not from the Oxford comma's presence or absence, but rather from whether or not the comma after "mother" is part of an appositive phrase.

Offhand, I don't think I've seen an example where an unambiguous sentence without an Oxford comma becomes ambiguous with the addition of the comma. All the ones I can recall have another ambiguity from an appositive phrase or similar without the Oxford comma and the Oxford comma at most just changes the ambiguity.

On the other hand there are sentences that are unambiguous with the Oxford comma that become ambiguous if it is removed.

This suggests that the Oxford comma should always be used when the list has more than two items, and it is appositive phrases that we need to be scrutinizing.

For appositive phrases, maybe we should use parenthesis instead of comma? In the above examples the appositive phrase cases become:

  To my mother (Ayn Rand) and God

  To my mother (Ayn Rand and God)
[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma

I agree with you, the correct way to write that is with dashes:

  To my mother - Ayn Rand - and God.
Or or the parentheses:

  To my mother (Ayn Rand) and God.
Then you disambiguate the extra information over the first item in the list. Which makes way more sense then including it in the list and assuming that the reader will disambiguate via their external contextual knowledge.

How any rational and intelligent person could argue for anything else is beyond me. Or maybe I've stumbled upon the dark secret of the humanities?

"To my mother, Ayn Rand and my daughter" is not ambiguous without the Oxford comma, but would be with it.

Good example.

Without the Oxford comma, it is unambiguous because we know that the comma cannot be making an appositive phrase, because if it was that phrase would include "Ayn Rand and my daughter". We know that your mother cannot be your daughter, so that cannot be intended part of an appositive phrase.

Note, though, that it is only unambiguous without the Oxford comma because we know that one's mother cannot be one's daughter. So in some sense it actually is ambiguous grammatically but we can resolve the ambiguity by using knowledge beyond grammar. (I don't know if punctuation counts as grammar, but I'm counting it in this comment).

As with my examples, the ambiguity stems from comma being both a list separator and a separator for parts of appositive phrases.

If we were to write appositive phrases like I suggested (using parenthesis instead of commas), and always use the Oxford comma, it would become "To my mother, Ayn Rand, and my daughter" and would be grammatically unambiguous. We would not need to know the meaning of the words to parse it. We would only need to know their grammatical categories.

I think you're quite right that mixing different separator uses of the same punctuation character is a source of ambiguity. This is where em-dashes and parentheticals shine.

It's also a good idea to rephrase to avoid the ambiguity. E.g.,

    To my mother, Ayn Rand; and also to my daughter, and God.

    To my mother, to Ayn Rand, to my daughter, and to God.
It's not always possible to just sprinkle a comma to disambiguate, so don't just do that. Use other punctuation. Add punctuation diversity to your writing -- make it clearer and more fun for you to write, and others to read.

The trick is to notice these issues as you write. Of course, that's not always easy, and it's particularly difficult when speaking, but at least it's not usually expected when speaking.

When speaking, we will also often address it by changing intonation and shortening pauses to indicate that we're interjecting something rather than continuing a list. E.g. in this case adding pressure to "Ayn Rand" and shortening or cutting the pause implied by the first comma if we want to imply they're one and the same:

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

And if we sense ambiguity we'll often similarly extend subsequent pauses to clearly separate list items.

We'll also often add body language to make the emphasis on connections even stronger.

I'm guessing a lot of ambiguous written lists are ambiguous because people have written the words roughly how they'd said them, and tried to follow grammar rules without thinking about the extra cues they're leaving out that'd be there if speaking.

It is ambiguous without external context; and is used to demarcate the last item in the list (at least that's what I was taught in school in the UK).

For example:

  To joe blogs, the pope, my cat and ferrari.
So the Pope is called Joe and is a cat?

Let's think for a moment. How would I write that if Pope Joe was my Cat?

  To joe blogs (the pope and my cat) and ferrari.
And for your example, if I only had the comma to punctuate then this is the only way I could write it unambiguously:

  To my mother Ayn Rand, and my daughter.
I think that this whole thread is an excellent argument against any attempts to encode any sort of rule set in a language wholly incapable of encoding it unambiguously.

Whether or not it's ambiguous doesn't matter much to me. It's confusing. That sentence is bad writing, Oxford comment or no. The goal of language is to understand others and be understood yourself. This kind of formal analysis doesn't help with that goal.

I think we would benefit from a simplified, formalized version of English for things like documentation and legalese. Does something like that already exist?

Why not just rewrite it to

"To my mother, my daughter, and Ayn Rand" or

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

That seems ambiguous to me. Is the mother Ayn Rand or not?

The presence of the Oxford comma, or lack thereof doesn't seem to affect the ambiguity.

> "To my mother, Ayn Rand and my daughter"

- Ayn Rand can't be in apposition of my mother as there's no comma setting Ayn Rand off from my daughter

- Similarly, Ayn Rand and my daughter are not in apposition

- my daughter and my mother are mutually exclusive

This is described in more detail here:


> "To my mother, Ayn Rand, and my daughter"

Adding the Oxford comma creates ambiguity between my mother and Ayn Rand, unless the speaker is Ayn Rand's daughter.

But here we're using semantics to disambiguate. It works, sure, but it works in fewer cases than punctuating/rephrasing to avoid the ambiguity grammatically rather than semantically.

Semantic disambiguation also imposes a higher cognitive load on the reader -- sometimes that's the point (high-brow writin'). But you should consider the poor reader. After all, you want to be read and understood.

Sure, which is why I mentioned the exception. The whole point of the example is to show there are cases where the Oxford comma alone doesn’t prevent ambiguity in all cases. I’m not arguing that the Oxford comma is silly. I’m just explaining how the example can be ambiguous. Language is messy and wonderful and frustrating and fun!

It only says the mother is Ayn Rand if the comma after mother is taken as making an appositive phrase. There is no later comma to end the appositive phrase, so we'd have to take "Ayn Rand and my daughter" and so it would be saying that his mother is both Ayn Rand and his daughter.

That's not possible so we can rule out the comma making an appositive phrase, and see that it must be a list comma, and we've got no ambiguity.

Putting in the Oxford comma makes it so we could interpret "My mother, Ayn Rand," as an appositive phrase, and we have ambiguity.

That clever bastard dropped an Oxford comma right from the very first sentence of the article.

(I understand the Times style guide advises against it. I'm still pretty sure he did it on purpose.)

> Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law.

I see no Oxford comma there. Am I missing something?

I think OP meant dropped as in "did not include," as opposed to made a reference to. The author set up a sentence that could have, but did not, contain an oxford comma.

He dropped the comma from the sentence, so it isn't there. That's the point.

Ah, thanks. Now I understand.

Uhmh, can anyone elaborate on exactly why someone driving perishable food should be exempt from overtime pay? Isn't it a bit ass-backwards: exactly those who need to work overtime so the food doesn't spoil are the ones who cannot get overtime? Am I reading that correctly?

You're reading it correctly and it's working as intended. The people who should have reasonably expected that their job involves overtime are the ones who shouldn't be able to demand punitive extra pay when it turns out that their job involves overtime.

Maybe it sounds more palatable said the other way round: the people whose job can't reasonably be expected to involve overtime are the ones who most need statutory protection when they're suddenly asked to work overtime (because they didn't plan for it when negotiating their contract, for example).

The point of overtime pay is to incentivise employers to employ extra workers instead of overworking the ones they already have into the grave. It doesn't matter whether it is expected or not, unless the job intrinsically requires overtime and cannot be done by hiring extra workers. So exceptions for trucking, perhaps, but exceptions for "packing for shipment" are definitely total bullshit!

Not always. Sometimes it's about safety (you don't want employees having to drive too many hours).

If you are an IT worker you're probably exempt from overtime pay as well. Does nobody bat an eye at this? How is this even justified?

Look at the comment in this thread declaring that you’re unreasonable to expect overtime compensation if you should “expect” overtime because of the nature of the work. That’s not a fringe opinion.

We live in an era where the rights of workers and individuals is held in contempt by those in business and government. If you aren’t wealthy, you’re defective.

We live in an era where the rights of workers is held in contempt by workers. Everybody wants to drag everyone else down.

There is wisdom here, and it takes courage and empathy to focus on building people up.

As a tech lead, I have made it my sacred duty to build people up rather than exploit them as 'resources'.

Personally the reason I don't complain about not getting overtime pay is because just as often as I'm working 12 hour days, I'm sitting at work playing games on my phone. Working in a more operational side of the IT spectrum, unless I have a major project I'm working on, my job is dependent on there actually being work to do.

Might not be the typical case for IT workers, but if I started complaining about overtime pay and wanting to get paid for hours I'm actually working, I might just find myself taking a pay cut.

If you had said for as often as your working 12 hour days you're spending time away from the office, you might actually convince someone. But sitting at work playing games on your phone is not really a job perk that most people would trade for.

I'm lucky that at my current job, despite legally being exempt, we actually get overtime. If I want to work more hours one night and go in late the next day I will do that. But if the company needs me to work after hours or on weekends, then they should pay overtime.

Because you're not an hourly worker. Your job doesn't involve punching in a time clock, so there is no such thing as overtime.

The flip side of this is there's no such thing as undertime either. If you go home early one day, you still get paid for the full day.

Because IT workers make a lot more money than the average voter so they are more likely to be the victim of animosity than the subject of pity.

Classic divide and conquer. Nobody will vote for worker protection laws because the law might also benefit someone who makes a different amount of money than them or someone otherwise from a different tribe.

I can see the law is there to protect property owners from being fleeced by the working class come harvest time, what's wrong with that? Maybe you don't own enough farmland to be able to relate to those who need to make lots of money from the misery of others, whether bovine or human!

But here is a thing -

Right now I am eating a dairy snack item that someone drove in a massive lorry across the Alps with, risking life and limb, climate changing the ozone hole in the process.

Theoretically this truck loaded with useful quantities of yoghurt laced with sugar could have been slowed down by ice, floods and immigrants on the road - anything could have happened.

You would think that it might be possible to buy a locally made dairy item. Cows used to be personally owned, as common as cars and really useful for pulling ploughs primarily. Then horses stepped up to the plough pulling and cows became relegated to dairy herds, no longer man's best 'prime mover' and not personally owned. There has been a lot of consolidation since, hence the food miles.

The dairy in town closed down a long time ago, the farmers now do other things with their fields and even the big dairy they built on a factory scale is closed as that was not competitive in the marketplace. The subsidies have gone and now the food miles are not really anything anyone cares about. However we do have massive lorries towing useful things like yoghurt and even water over the Alps.

I know that lorry drivers in Europe have some tachometer that does not lie. They therefore cannot rack up the overtime extensively. There is a limit to how many hours they can be physically at the wheel or else they would be breaking the law.

In dairy you do have weather related yield changes, so if it is really dry and the cows have nothing to eat then there is not the same supply as when everything is lush and green. There are also supply changes, demand can go silly at Christmas. I appreciate that in 1956 or whenever it was necessary to get 'farm hands' to pull their weight when nature demanded it but we have moved in to a sillier world and I bet those Maine drivers aren't doing local runs but taking product many miles across many 'Alps' in a supply chain that has over-evolved for yester-laws.

Now I want a cow, thanks.

Seriously, I can't help but wonder if we have made some comically bad mistakes in letting food become so centralized.

Before getting a dairy animal, consider: do I want to spend 30 minutes every single morning and every single evening, regardless of weather, vacation time, desire to travel, or illness, to get 1-2 gallons of milk per day?

Small-scale dairy requires a huge commitment of time at regular, consistent times. It is about as far from a casual hobby as you can get.

(Source: my wife wanted a dairy goat. We no longer have goats.)

So, my solution to that is to hire staff via Schedule H.

Minimum wage makes that expensive milk (though probably less expensive than doing it yourself!)

As an author I laugh whenever I hear about the big debate over the Oxford comma. It's the literary equivalent to the big curly brace on the same vs next line. However, in this instance, as well as certain code scenarios in JavaScript, structuring it one way or another can affect the semantics.

Like code, disambiguating my text is why I generally favor using the Oxford comma in my writing. Not using it is the equivalent to not using parenthesis in a complex logical expression, and defaulting to known order of operations.

Say you want to express:

  Jane and Tom, Bill and Wendy, or Susie and Frank.
In code you would be unambiguous with:

  (Jane && Tom) || (Bill && Wendy) || (Susie && Frank)
So why omit the Oxford comma when it is necessary to disambiguate? It would have saved both parties, as well as the state of Maine a lot of time, money, and headache.

I agree re: favoring Oxford comma, but I don't think this reasoning supports it. Jane && Tom || Bill && Wendy || Susie && Frank is unambiguous in e.g. C++, as the language specifies operator precedence. The inclusion of parentheses is a question of style, not correctness. OTOH, omitting commas can rely on context and subjective reasoning.

Speaking of commas, you're missing one after the end of the interrupting phrase in your last sentence (should say ", as well as the state of Maine,"). It's a pet peeve bigger than the lack of Oxford commas, and definitely affects readability and may affect meaning.

Ha ha thank you.

Feels like they could have made this even simpler by reordering the exemptions. For example:

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

I'm a fan of the Oxford comma and think it would still add clarity here. The semicolon solution is ham-fisted and unnecessary.

It would have been even clearer as

  Any activity necessary to prevent the spoilage
  of comestible goods prior to their arrival at a
  market where they may be offered for sale to
  consumers, including, but not limited to, the
  activities specified in subsection (1) and the
  goods specified in subsection (2).
  (1) Activities:
    (a) Canning,
    (b) Processing,
    (c) Preserving,
    (d) Freezing,
    (e) Drying,
    (f) Marketing,
    (g) Storing,
    (h) Packing for shipment, or
    (i) Distribution.
  (2) Goods:
    (a) Agricultural produce,
    (b) Meat products,
    (c) Fish products, or
    (d) Perishable foods.
A lawyer would then be able to specifically address the relevant portion of the law, by labeling the plaintiffs as satisfying both (1)(i) and (2)(d), along with satisfying the overall criterion of getting a perishable comestible to market prior to its spoilage.

Writing the intent of the law into the actual law is a great way to keep lawyers from arguing over commas.

What we want is for them to argue about whether pasteurized dairy goods would have spoiled if the drivers had worked a normal shift. Presumably, they would have been kept in refrigerators overnight?

But it would have been even clearer to not have the law at all. The businesses that benefited from it would just have to pay more for the labor capacity that they clearly anticipated, since they got a legislator to pass this law for them. Need more driver labor to get your milk to market? Hire another driver or pay your existing drivers overtime!

But doesn't that make "storing" ambiguous? It could mean "storing" of the 3 following categories, or "storing for shipment" of the 3 following categories.

Fair point. I suppose that means the Oxford comma is actually necessary in this case.

The interpretation that considers "packing for distribution" as an exemption and not "distribution" makes for a grammatically incorrect sentence in any case.

"A, B, C or D" is a correct sentence without Oxford comma, and the structure used originally. "A, B, C, or D" is also correct, and does have the Oxford comma. But the interpretation I mentioned reads the sentence as "A, B, C" -- where C is the whole of "packing for shipment or distribution". You need something there, either "and" or "or" or something similar. I'd say the language is perfectly unambiguous, if a little strained. But that's just law texts in general.

Edit: consistency

I'm as big a fan of the Oxford comma as anyone, but the court ruling here was ridiculous. External evidence, including the state legislature's style guide, made it perfectly clear what the law meant.

Not so ridiculous, really. A style guide isn't necessarily legally binding, and even clear evidence of legislative intent doesn't always get there if someone can argue the law that actually got written was ambiguous.

California's red-light infractions are a pretty common example of this. The vehicle code lays out what the infractions are, and the people who drafted it have said very clearly that they intended to have a "rolling turn" -- making a right turn at a red light without coming to a full stop first -- be a lesser infraction than running a red (driving straight through without stopping). But a number of cities in California have argued the language is ambiguous enough to let them ticket a rolling turn as running the red light, and that's exactly what they do (most likely because the fines and fees are far higher). It's also pretty well known that anyone who hires a lawyer to fight one of those will get the ticket dismissed, because the cities don't want it to ever be argued all the way out and potentially turn into a ruling against their interpretation.

style guides are not laws and if the style guide changes it changes the meaning of the law.

Yes, but the intent of a law matters. It's why it goes to court in the first place. I mean the meaning here is pretty clear, different from a real legal loophole where the system just hasn't been thoroughly planned.

But a style guide in effect at the time the law was written would clearly help disambiguate the intent of the law. That being said, I'm an Oxford comma fan.

I agree. I think the Oxford comma is a necessity; but so far as I can tell there is only one grammatically valid parsing of the sentence.

Style guides don't resolve the ambiguity, they just tell you it exists.

Just my 2c: to me the original is really really hard to parse. I'm not sure why, but it just doesn't make sense to me.

Things like this are why I really think people should learn boolean expressions --- they are unambiguous:

    (canning ||
     processing ||
     preserving ||
     freezing ||
     drying ||
     marketing ||
     storing ||
     packing for shipment ||
    (Agricultural produce &&
     Meat and fish products &&
     Perishable foods)
(Curiously enough, the list of items is combined with AND and not OR --- so presumably, something which does not satisfy one of those conditions is not exempt?)

Incidentally, this also explains the content of the LSAT, as discussed previously at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15683658

Can someone explain why these exemptions exist in the first place?

The industry lobbied for them, and there was no workers' union to tell the other side of the story.

It seems to me like the intent is to avoid economic waste due to spoilage of perishable goods that might otherwise be sold, but for a dearth of timely labor.

It also seems like the burden should be on the employer to hire more laborers if they have need of more labor, or to demonstrate some reasonable level of urgency that would have prevented hiring.

Since this suit covered years of unpaid overtime, it is clear to me that someone bought themselves a "F U" law that only benefits their own selfish interests, at the expense of someone else. It is likely responsible for the failure of the business to hire an additional permanent driver employee, or to ever employ a contractor to pick up the slack during rushes and crunches.

Because when you don't collectively fight for your rights, your boss will fight to take them away, and will probably win.

Your employer is in a better position to lobby for a law that will let them underpay 1000 employees by $100 each, then then their employees are to protect themselves from such a law.

Speaking of ambiguity:

> (In most cases, The Times stylebook discourages the serial comma, often called the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by the Oxford University Press.)

Does the Times just not like styling ideas from the Oxford University Press, or is the name "Oxford comma" derived from its traditional use by the Oxford University Press, or both?

What does the Times have against the Oxford University Press, or the Oxford comma, anyways?

The Oxford comma is opposed by the NYT editors, Hitler and Stalin.

Is their overlap strong between people who want to leave the comma out with the set of people who don't use semicolons in javascript?

Maybe the easiest way to settle things like this would be to simply not give exemptions for overtime pay.

To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes (from the guy who developed Comic Sans):

If you really love the Oxford Comma you don't know much about writing and need a new hobby. If you really hate the Oxford Comma you don't know much about writing and need a new hobby.

this, I think we can all agree. no wait.. this I think, we can all agree. No, hang on, this I think we, can all agree ...

You might have been implying this with your parenthetical but, just to say it, the irony is that the same guy created Comic Sans.

I wasn't implying that, just giving him credit for a great quote.

> In an interview for the Huffington Post, Vincent Connare, designer of Comic Sans, said, “if you love Comic Sans, you don’t know anything about typography. But if you hate Comic Sans, then you don’t know anything about typography either…and you should get another hobby”.

In that case you didn't paraphrase the quote so much as repurpose it.

its neither a paraphrase nor a repurpose, because its not the quote, and its boolean logic doesn't equate to the quote either, comma or not. The original quote only appends "get a new hobby" to one side of the decision logic. This quote has it on both.

Obey De-Morgans law, or not. Yoda doesn't care.

Please can we now have a lawsuit punishing somebody for using "less" rather than "fewer"?

This says it all: https://i.imgur.com/fycHx.jpg

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