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Can a missing comma cost $5 million?

By Lily Zhao

Why it’s important for a copy editor to review your content... Yes, a single grammar mistake cost one organization millions of dollars.


A woman typing on a computer.According to a New York Times article, drivers in Maine received $5 million because of a dispute over the Oxford comma. You may not think a single comma is important, but this case shows why a small mistake could be costly — and the importance of copy editing.





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The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma), is the comma that follows the second-to-last item in a list of three or more items, coming before the conjunction. Although not grammatically necessary, many people choose to use it to clear up ambiguity and avoid confusion. 


The case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy gained international attention in 2017 when the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit declared that the missing comma created enough ambiguity to rule in favor of the drivers, giving Oxford comma lovers the chance to pump their fists in victory.


For additional background, in 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy for four years’ worth of overtime pay. Maine requires companies to pay workers a time-and-a-half for every hour worked over 40 hours except for: 


“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.”


The court ruled that “packing for shipment or distribution of” was too ambiguous: It was not clear if the law exempted the distribution of the three following categories, or if it referred to exempting packing for the shipment or distribution of them.


If there had been a comma after the word “shipment,” it would've been clear what the meaning was. The Maine Legislature then revised the disputed law by adding semicolons in place of each comma, so the revised version is as follows: 


“The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:


(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.”


Whether you’re in favor of the Oxford comma or against it, make sure to abide by your company’s in-house style guide when creating content. These seemingly tiny details show why it’s important to have a copy editor review your work. Who knows? Not having a copy editor’s eye on the details could cost you millions of dollars.


If you’re ready to tell your company’s story, let Axia Public Relations help copy edit your content. We follow AP style and our own in-house style guides for our agency and clients. For many companies, copy editing is an added expense, but we offer this service to our clients at no additional cost because it’s the right thing to do. Most PR agencies don’t have a copy editor. They use a process called peer review, where a friend or colleague reviews the work and offers causal suggestions. But this person isn’t a professional editor or a grammarian. At Axia, we have a peer review process too. But then we get one or more of our five professionally trained and newsroom-experienced copy editors involved too. 


To learn more about how we can help you create flawless, excellent content, contact us at 888-PR-FIRM-8 or book a no-obligation consultation today.


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Topics: copy editing

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