Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I Never Knew Oxford had a Comma

For 175 years my ancestors have resided in a small corner of Lafayette (luh fay et) County, Mississippi. It is a part of the world enamored with Pine Trees, Oxford, and the University of Mississippi. It is known for its ties to John Grisham, William Faulkner, and Archie Manning. But it is not known for its otherwise famous comma. In fact, in all the time I have spent in Oxford, I have yet to even see the Oxford Comma (the location is said to be a closely guarded secret). Local residents will provide you a quite peculiar look sometimes if you inquire of the whereabouts of the Oxford Comma. 

Yet there it is, likely just around the corner from where James Meredith drew support and criticism, eventually attended law school, and made history. Oxford has a long and storied history. It is proud of its dam, its food, and its football. The Sardis dam is said to be the second longest land dam in the world. Oxford is a place of history, solitude, and serenity. The town center is said to rest on land originally donated by John Chisholm, John D. Martin, and John L.Craig. More recently, Ole Miss garnered attention in the 21st century with its debate to replace its Colonel Reb mascot. Contenders included Admiral Ackbar, Rebel Bruiser, and the eventually victorious Black Bear. 

Oxford Comma inquiries outside the confines of Mississippi will produce self-assured responses that the Oxford Comma has nothing to do with The Grove, The Square, or the self-effacing and rarely uttered "Hotty Toddy." Outside of Mississippi, there is an insistence that the "Oxford" of the Oxford Comma references instead some humble, obscure, and distant institution of higher learning far away in Europe somewhere (which, rumor has it, does not even play in the SEC). But, I digress. The real point is not where the Oxford Comma is, what it looks like (throughout this post it is red and bold), or where it came from. The real point is that in the world of legalese, phrase-parsing, and interpreting words, the famed Oxford Comma has gotten some recent attention. 


The "Oxford" comma, in reality, has nothing to do with this little corner of Mississippi, so steeped in history, hospitality, and geniality. This "Oxford" is a shorthand reference to the use of a comma before a conjunction (and, but, or; remember School House Rock?) in any series. 

The New York Times recently reported that the "Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute." (I suspect they just forgot the article: "a" Maine Company, but I digress). The dispute is between truck drivers and a local dairy in Maine. There is an Maine statute, which was drawn up by some lawyers (who likely did not attend Ole Miss and therefore apparently lack familiarity with the famed "Oxford Comma," much like the Times apparently lacks familiarity with articles). The story is getting a great deal of coverage in places like the Australian Financial Review, The British Broadcasting Company (BBC), The Boston Globe, and The USA Today. One might say it is the "comma heard round the world."

The Times reported that the driver's class-action lawsuit seeks overtime pay for the drivers. It evolved (or devolved) into an expensive debate about the famous Oxford Comma, and apparently divided the community in which the dairy operates. Essentially, the drivers sought overtime and the dispute was controlled by the Maine statute that exempts some efforts and labor from overtime. These are: "The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of" various food products. 

Note that the red, bold, and noticeable Oxford Comma is missing from the list of exceptions ("for shipment(,) or distribution of"). And thus, the debate ensued as to whether this law intends "to exempt packing for the shipping" or simply for the "distribution of them?" Phrased differently, "does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories (various food products) that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them?" And that, is the truth of which great (or small) lawsuits are made.

You see, the drivers seeking overtime in Maine distribute, "but they don't pack the boxes." The Times says that if there had been an Oxford Comma after "shipment" then "it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable goods." As in baseball sometimes, the tie goes to the base runner. The Court ruled in favor of the drivers seeking overtime. It concluded that "the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor."

The Times notes that the Oxford Comma is "perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks." There is less than universal agreement as to its necessity, propriety, and effectiveness. A great many seemingly respect it less than a vestigial tail. But why, with the potential for misunderstanding, would one not simply include the Oxford Comma for the sake of safety? (you know, for Justin, Justin Case?). The Times reports that it was omitted from this Maine statute in compliance with the instructions provided to Maine legislators, the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual. The powers-that-be in the Pine Tree State (Not making that up. As an aside, if any state should be the pine tree state, it is Mississippi, just sayin') have specifically instructed legislators not to use the Oxford Comma. 

This all reminded me of Benjamin Franklin (for whom Franklin County, Mississippi is coincidentally named), who is credited with the rhyme:
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost, For the want of a shoe the horse was lost, For the want of a horse the rider was lost, For the want of a rider the battle was lost, For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.
And now, for want of appreciation, a comma was lost. A comma was lost for the sake of satisfying the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual. A comma was lost, and perhaps millions of dollars will be lost, or found depending upon perspective, as a result. 

According to the Times, there is significant disagreement surrounding the Oxford Comma. But that is nothing new. It resolved a Canadian telephone pole contract dispute in 2006, a Chrysler bankruptcy dispute in 2010, and a North Carolina contract dispute in 2015. Conversely, I could find no examples in which the inclusion of an Oxford Comma resulted in a dispute, ambiguity, or misunderstanding. 

Perhaps the real lesson of these examples is two-fold. First, always be wary of manuals and books written by so-called English "experts" that did not attend Ole Miss. Second, perhaps, it, is, better, safe, than, sorry, when, deciding, when, where, or, if, to, use, a, comma?

If you make the pilgrimage out to Lafayette County to see the famed Oxford Comma, be sure to try the catfish, greens, and pecan pie (those same English scholars would likely mispronounce pecan also). Other attractions recommended for your historical tour include Yocuna, Delay, and old Dallas. Spring is in the air, country cookin' is on the mind, and you can't wait to see the Oxford Comma in all its glory. Just park on the square and ask any local for directions. If they pretend not to know, just find a bench, sit a spell, and ask the next one that comes by. 

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