A year ago, drivers for Oakhurst Dairy won a lawsuit against the company for lost pay due to a dispute in Maine labor laws. Faced with the complaint that the state’s stipulations of overtime pay were too confusing, Oakhurst Dairy settled for $5 million, according to The New York Times. This anniversary invites a re-examination of modern punctuation guidelines.
The New York Times article explains that Maine requires time-and-a-half pay for any hours worked over 40 hours per week, but there are exceptions. One such exception is for “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” certain edible goods. Depending on how the reader looks at it, this final clause could be interpreted as “packing of these goods for shipment or distribution of these goods” or “packing of these goods, whether for their shipment or distribution.” Some may argue that it sounds like splitting hairs, but the legal interpretation of Maine labor law either includes or excludes the distribution of the foods in question—in other words, driving them from packing plants to their destinations. How can we solve the riddles of commas and semicolons, two of the most common punctuation landmines?
Deciphering the Comma
“Commas are designed to mark or set off phrases or groups of words shorter than a sentence,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. Commas can interject a separate, relevant thought mid-sentence. For example, if I have only one brother and he has a career in the film industry, and he visited me in February, I could say, “My brother, who works in film, visited me in February.” Commas can also be used for parenthetical references, like if I said, “My brother, as I said, visited me in February.” However, the Oakhurst Dairy case deals with simple lists.
Simple lists are a succession of basic, related items. You might go grocery shopping for eggs and bread and milk and cheese. However, in writing, you would likely separate those items with commas for easier recitation. If you make use of the Oxford (or “serial”) comma, each item on the list—including the last two—would be separated by a comma. For example, “I’m going shopping for eggs, bread, milk, and cheese.” The Oxford comma is commonly used for clarification and in writing styles like the MLA Handbook and The Chicago Manual of Style. However, Associated Press (AP) style, which journalists and newspapers use, omits the Oxford comma. For AP style, the same sentence would be typed as, “I’m going shopping for eggs, bread, milk and cheese” to aid the natural flow of reading the sentence.
Demystifying the Semicolon
“Semicolons have two main uses,” Dr. Curzan said. “The first is that they join two independent clauses that have a close semantic relationship.” Independent clauses could technically stand as their own sentence, but semicolons join them into one flowing thought. In other words, we might write, “It was raining; puddles formed in the street.” We could correctly say “It was raining. Puddles formed in the street.” However, using a semicolon very slightly changes the way we read the entire passage.
The second use for semicolons is in an “embedded list,” or a list of things that may already contain punctuation within them. For example, if you referred to several of your friends and their occupations, a semicolon helps to separate them in the list. Pretend you have a friend named Simon who is a butcher. Pretend you have another friend named Anne who is an accountant. Finally, imagine you have a third friend named Bruce who is a baker. Without semicolons, you might write, “I met my friends, Simon, the butcher, Anne, the accountant, and Bruce, the baker.” But this creates confusion because you could also be describing two additional nameless friends: the butcher and the accountant. Semicolons aid in differentiating between them and clarifying the list. “I met my friends, Simon, the butcher; Anne, the accountant; and Bruce, the baker.”
The Oakhurst Dairy lawsuit makes a strong case for clarity in punctuation. Simple commas or semicolons can cost millions of dollars for a company depending on clauses in a contract or state law. Over time, and with practice, we can build a working relationship with punctuation marks and learn to use them properly to avoid such entanglements.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.