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The importance of the Oxford comma for truck drivers!
Thread poster: Texte Style
Texte Style
Local time: 02:20
French to English
Mar 16

Not bothering with Oxford commas means these truck drivers will get paid for more overtime:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/16/oxford-comma-helps-drivers-win-dispute-about-overtime-pay

yay for the Oxford comma!


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Member (2011)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Lol Mar 16

The only place your average truck driver would put an Oxford comma is between "potatoe" and "s".

And the court here isn't far off that. The sentence in question is not in the slightest bit ambiguous. If you added a comma you'd also have to add another "and" or "or"...


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Annamaria Amik  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
Romanian to English
+ ...
Is it really ambiguous? Mar 17

I'm not a native speaker of English, but is it really that ambiguous without the Oxford comma?
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.

(bold letters mine)

In my opinion, the fact that the list of these activities starts with the definite article "The" means that everything on the list is specific, i.e. applies to the rest of the clause, and is not a general or independent ("its own") activity.

I mean, if the sentence had started like this: "Canning, processing, preserving... packing for shipment or distribution of:", the lack of the serial comma would have indeed created ambiguity.

Obviously they did bother with the "Oxford semicolon" after item (2), so can we say it was oversight or negligent omission in the introductory sentence?

Thanks in advance for any enlightening comments!

[Edited at 2017-03-17 08:10 GMT]


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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 02:20
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
Yes Mar 17

Chris S wrote:
The sentence in question is not in the slightest bit ambiguous. If you added a comma you'd also have to add another "and" or "or"...


I agree. There are examples where an extra comma would help avoid ambiguity, but this is not one.


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Daryo
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:20
Serbian to English
+ ...
a lazy apostrophe descended from the ascender to the baseline to become a comma? Mar 17

Chris S wrote:

The only place your average truck driver would put an Oxford comma is between "potatoe" and "s".

...


Regular nouns are nouns that form their plurals by adding either the letter s or es (guy, guys; letter, letters; actress, actresses; etc.). To show plural possession, simply put an apostrophe after the s. Rule 2b. Do not use an apostrophe + s to make a regular noun plural.
http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/apostro.asp

I haven't seen yet a truck driver using a comma instead of an apostrophe - at least that bit they get right ...

Back to the initial story, if you read it with an open mind, it is ambiguous, and in legal texts that can mean - as it turned out to be the case here - lost litigation.

This kind of ambiguity could easily be avoided by using structured lists instead of linear text, but that's another story.

A good example that in legal texts not only every word counts, but also every comma (or potentially any other punctuation marks).


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TonyTK
German to English
+ ...
I'm all for stereotypes ... Mar 17

Chris S wrote:

The only place your average truck driver would put an Oxford comma is between "potatoe" and "s".



... and a bit of Friday morning prejudice, but that doesn't make sense.


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Texte Style
Local time: 02:20
French to English
TOPIC STARTER
my take Mar 17

is that if you can work it so that hardworking people get paid for their hard work, it's worth blinding a judge with comma sense

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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Member (2011)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Oops Mar 17

Ignore what I said earlier (I didn't have the sentence in front of me as I typed).

What I should have said is that the alternative meaning claimed by the truckers (or most likely some enterprising lawyer) would require an extra "or":

"The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, OR packing for shipment or distribution of..."

And in that case I would add an Oxford comma to avoid ambiguity... which is what commas are for... although there are no rules as such, just conventions...

As soon as you start applying rules rather than feel to commas and hyphens, you're in big trouble, I reckon.

Annamaria Amik wrote:

Thanks in advance for any enlightening comments!


I don't think the "The" makes any difference here. We tend to use it in the UK, while the Americans tend not to, but it doesn't affect how I understand the end of the sentence.

Nobody would ever know you weren't a native speaker, Annamaria. Your English is phenomenally good. I'm very jealous.


[Edited at 2017-03-17 08:44 GMT]


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Annamaria Amik  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
Romanian to English
+ ...
What the ruling means Mar 17

Chris S wrote:

Annamaria Amik wrote:

Thanks in advance for any enlightening comments!


I don't think the "The" makes any difference here. We tend to use it in the UK, while the Americans tend not to, but it doesn't affect how I understand the end of the sentence.


@Chris:
I think the point here is that the judge ruled the guidelines were ambiguous, not that they had to be interpreted this or that way. From what I understand, the judge didn't say which interpretation (any sort of packing activity or just the packing of those specific goods) was the correct one, he simply established that the phrasing in that form, i.e. without the Oxford comma, was ambiguous. And whenever there is an ambiguity, the ruling/interpretation must favor the workers, he argued. He didn't say he agreed with the workers' interpretation of the sentence. But I admit I haven't read the whole reasoning.

What I am saying is that this ambiguity ruling would have been valid from a linguistic point of view only if the sentence hadn't been introduced by the definite article "The", like this:
e.g. Canning, processing, ... packing for shipment or distribution of: – indeed, in that case purists could claim it is not clear whether any sort of packing or just the packing of those goods doesn't count towards overtime.

In my opinion, the definite article "The..." starting the sentence must clearly be read together with the preposition "... of" ending it. So everything between them must be considered as referring to the 3 items that come after that sentence. I mean: if those items (1)-(3) hadn't been there at all, they would not have started the sentence with "the", they would have simply stated "Canning, processing, ..., packing for shipment or distribution". Especially because they are Americans and, like you commented, they tend to omit the definite article anyway
So with the definite article introducing the sentence, there's no way you can separate the first part (packing for shipment) from the last part (distribution of). And if this is true, like my non-native ears suspect but cannot be sure, then there is no ambiguity.
The judge could rule in favor of the workers only because of this alleged ambiguity, not because he agreed with the workers' interpretation.


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Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Member (2011)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Yes Mar 17

Annamaria Amik wrote:

In my opinion, the definite article "The..." starting the sentence must clearly be read together with the preposition "... of" ending it. So everything between them must be considered as referring to the 3 items that come after that sentence.


Ah, I see what you mean now. Yes, you're absolutely right.

So it has to mean what it does mean, it cannot mean what it doesn't, and yet it's considered ambiguous...

Perhaps we need an International Court of Grammar to decide cases like this!


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Álvaro Espantaleón  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 02:20
Member (2015)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Ambiguos Mar 17

It can be: the packing, for shipment or distribution, of A, B and C OR the packing for shipment or the distribution of A, B and C.

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Annamaria Amik  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
Romanian to English
+ ...
That, or... Mar 17

Chris S wrote:

Perhaps we need an International Court of Grammar to decide cases like this!


Or we could offer our services to employers and their lawyers, get rich [insert Oxford comma, as applicable] and never have to dissect grammatically intriguing court rulings for fun/out of boredom.


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Annamaria Amik  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
Romanian to English
+ ...
Clarity Mar 17

Álvaro Espantaleón wrote:

It can be: the packing, for shipment or distribution, of A, B and C OR the packing for shipment or the distribution of A, B and C.


That's a great observation.

Things are a bit more complicated, I think. It seems the whole debate is not even about the guideline, but how the trial judge interpreted it!

It was the trial judge who incorrectly ruled in favor of the employer, who wanted distribution – as a stand-alone activity – to be exempted from overtime pay, as well, among the other activities listed. Indeed, from a purist linguist's point of view, the employer could have won the lawsuit in the trial phase correctly only if there had been an Oxford comma separating distribution. But since there was NOT, the workers filed an appeal, and it was the appeals judge who found that in the current form of the sentence, distribution could not be seen as a separate activity - which confirms what I said above: no reason to separate the elements at all, there is no ambiguity.

The reasoning here is very interesting though. It appears the linguistic debate between employer and workers, or trial judge and appeals judge, was more complex than just the comma issue. They mentioned the gerunds as the main reason why distribution could not be interpreted as a stand-alone activity.
The CNN article is a bit confusing, though, it does suggest the judge ruled in favor of the workers because of the ambiguity (making me pointlessly analyze definite articles...) around the term packing for shipment, when in fact it was the other term that was unclear.

[Edited at 2017-03-17 13:30 GMT]


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Annamaria Amik  Identity Verified
Local time: 03:20
Romanian to English
+ ...
Legal systems Mar 17

TonyTK wrote:

Chris S wrote:

The only place your average truck driver would put an Oxford comma is between "potatoe" and "s".



... and a bit of Friday morning prejudice, but that doesn't make sense.


Oh come on, Chris was funny

If this case (where there is an ambiguity) were judged in a civil-law country, the judge would rule in favor of the party that has a debt, i.e. the employer. Very interesting to see this rule doesn't necessarily apply in common law.

Imagine this as a translation situation: the translator interprets it one of the two possible ways, causing its client who relies on that interpretation unnecessary litigation costs. It is a bit frightening, too. For example, this could be translated into Romanian while keeping it just as ambiguous as the English source, but if you had to translate it into Hungarian, you would have to choose one of the possible interpretations.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 01:20
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Here Mar 17

Texte Style wrote:

Not bothering with Oxford commas means these truck drivers will get paid for more overtime:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/16/oxford-comma-helps-drivers-win-dispute-about-overtime-pay

yay for the Oxford comma!


I've never heard of the "Oxford comma". Is that different from greengrocer's apostrophe?

images



[Edited at 2017-03-17 16:35 GMT]


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