When a comma means so much by Susan Grimsdell

My favourite news item of the year is the one about a comma.  It was all about overtime pay for truck drivers, pay dating back over four years.  Big money was at stake – as much as $10 million.

Truck drivers and grammar

I love it because I have to confess that I’m one of the “grammar police”: very picky about the way words are used and about things like syntax, apostrophes, and for sure – commas.  So when I heard that the humble comma, placement of, was the key to a major court case, I was thrilled.

The truck drivers get paid overtime for each hour worked after 40 hours, but the law states exemptions.  Here’s the pesky one:  the law says, “Overtime does not apply to: canning, processing, freezing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of (1) agricultural products  (2) meat and fish  (3) perishable goods”.

For the want of a comma

Now – does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipment or distribution of them?  Drivers distribute those categories of foods but they don’t pack the boxes.

If there had been a comma after “shipment” it would have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of the foods.  But there was no comma.  What was not paid overtime for was when drivers “pack and distribute” the items.  Which they don’t do.  They distribute, but that didn’t stand alone as an exemption, so the company was out of luck, forced to pay up and the drivers were over the moon.

The lesson is – whether you’re an employer or an employee, it’s vital to get your act together when it comes to grammar!   And my pickiness over the importance of grammar is vindicated at last.


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