Few people actually remember all those pesky grammar rules we learned in school. But you can bet that a company in Maine will not be forgetting its comma rules anytime soon.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that a lawsuit against a Maine dairy company brought by its employees could go forward. The reason? The Maine legislature did not use what is known as the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma. And it will almost certainly turn out to cost that company a lot of money to defend the case.
A serial comma is the punctuation used between the penultimate item in a list and a conjunction. Using or not using this comma can lead to confusion as to the writer’s intended meaning.
For example, if I asked you to make dinner reservations for “myself, my parents, Bill Gates and Oprah,” you might be confused about how many seats I will need. Instead, I could ask you to make reservations for “myself, my parents, Bill Gates, and Oprah,” and you would correctly reserve five seats.
Style guides are split on whether to use the serial comma. Most, including the APA, MLA, and U.S Government Printing Office, advise that writers and editors make use of the serial comma in order to avoid ambiguity such as that in the Maine case. However, the Associated Press and the New York Times, advise against it. Sentences can be restructured to eliminate confusion, they argue.
The debate has even engendered a sort of cult internet activism in recent years, leading to amusing but passionate stories, like a grieving daughter arguing with a funeral director over ambiguities in her father’s obituary.
This issue is more than just academic. It arises in many different contexts where clarity is of the utmost importance, such as drafting contracts, employment policies, or other written instruments.
Individuals and companies who want to avoid the ambiguity that befell the Maine dairy company should pay attention to this and other grammatical nuances when making written agreements or drafting documents.
It would not be the first time a legal dispute arose regarding an obscure grammatical rule.
Just last fall, Davis Brown attorneys Jodie McDougal and Elizabeth Meyer won a case before the Iowa Court of Appeals involving what is known as “the rule of the last antecedent.” This rule states that a qualifying phrase only applies to an adjacent item in a list, unless separated by a comma.
For example, if I told you, “I want to give $10,000 to my sons, my grandsons, and my granddaughters if they graduate from college,” can my sons and grandsons expect to receive a check even if they do not graduate? Or does the requirement that they graduate only apply to my granddaughters?
When reviewing statutes, contracts, and other written documents, it may become necessary to understand the import of these grammatical nuances. When in doubt, ask your attorney to draft and review documents to ensure that they are clear and enforceable. It just may be the difference between winning and losing if that document ends up in court.