Eventually, All Pedantry Is Linguistic Pedantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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