Editor’s Note

Got Comma?

Let us pause for a few words about the comma. It may seem an odd topic for a magazine published by a school that teaches business, a realm usually ruled by numerals. But commas can mean money. Serious money.

And I can cite 10 million reasons why that’s so – as in the $10 million class-action lawsuit won by plaintiffs in Maine because of a comma that wasn’t where it probably should have been.

Here’s the background: In 2014, truck drivers at a Maine dairy sued the company for four years’ worth of overtime pay that they said had been denied to them. The dairy, in denying the original claim, cited a Maine law that says the payment of OT isn’t required for workers involved in “[the] canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” produce, meat and fish, and other perishable foods.

Note that the above phrase within the quotation marks has seven commas. I know of a dairy in Maine that wishes there was an eighth – a comma after the word “shipment.” That would have signaled that overtime pay may also be withheld from those involved in the distribution of merchandise, such as the drivers of dairy trucks. The comma would have bracketed the drivers within an additional category of OT ineligibility.

Minus that eighth comma, the last six words of the phrase appear to refer only to workers who pack the products (for shipment or distribution).

In the gap left by that absent comma, the plaintiffs’ lawyer saw an opening big enough to drive a milk truck through. His argument won over the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, with the result that some 75 drivers are to share the $10 million payout.

It’s the kind of story that grammar nerds thrill to, people who start barroom fights over the Oxford (serial) comma, the very punctuation mark that was the Maine dairy’s downfall in this case.

So, you may wonder, what is this story doing in a business school magazine?

Because it’s a useful reminder that the careful use of words and punctuation marks is as important as the precise ordering of numbers and decimals points.

As The New York Times stated in its coverage of the Maine lawsuit, legal history is loaded with tales of major cases and business deals that hung on how a comma was used within the wording.

The incident in Maine can likely be blamed on the state legislators who wrote that particular law (and who evidently failed to understand that writing is editing). But it’s a lesson that surely has resonance in all professions, including business, whether the context is a lengthy contract, a crucial presentation, or a complex negotiation.

Remember not just to mind your ones and twos but also your P’s and Q’s.

And your commas.

– PE