Commas and windfalls

Exciting news from the State of Maine. The Oxford comma is required by law.

Now, knowing me, you know that that excites me for two reasons: I love all things Maine, and I love the Oxford comma.

You’re probably familiar with Maine (at the very least, you can find it on a map), but you might not be familiar with the Oxford comma, named after the Oxford University Press guidebook that demands it be used. It’s also known as the serial comma, because it is the last comma in a series of things.

For example, consider its strategic use in this sentence: I love my parents, Gloria Estefan and Denzel Washington. Whoa! Some awesome parents there! Now add the Oxford comma and it makes sense: I love my parents, Gloria Estefan, and Denzel Washington.

What does this have to do with Maine? A U.S. court of appeals recently ruled that Maine had a missing Oxford comma in its laws that was depriving its delivery truck drivers of overtime pay. The lawsuit is still in process and might go on to the Supreme Court. Can you imagine those nine venerable souls discussing the peculiarities of grammar rather than Constitutional nuances?

The language in question was this: 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 don’t qualify for overtime pay.

The problem? The missing comma after shipment. Truck drivers claimed that their work had nothing to do with packing, that they were distributors only—they didn’t pack for distribution. They simply distributed, and were therefore not exempt from overtime pay. The missing comma inadvertently combined packing into both shipment and distribution, the or presupposed as an and. The law as written combined shipment and distribution into one packing activity.

Oakhurst Dairy is now liable for overtime payment to its delivery truck drivers, and one supposes countless other agricultural companies will likewise be liable. Oakhurst, the “natural goodness of Maine,” the first big dairy to pledge on its labels that it used no artificial growth hormones, the charitable Maine institution that gives 10% of its profits away each year, is now beholden to its drivers for millions of dollars. Oakhurst Dairy, whose red, gold, and white trucks are as common on Maine roads as 20-year-old pickups, has drivers who have suddenly received a windfall.

Uh oh. <<CAUTION! WILD DIVERSION AHEAD!>>Speaking of a windfall, the word means what it says. A windfall is literally fruit blown from a tree by the wind. That’s how it falls, rather than being picked off the tree by hand.

According to Maine State Pomological Society, there are lots of apples in Maine, over 100 varieties on 84 farms producing a million bushels a year.

And that’s not counting the windfall.

Now the distressing news. This wounds me to the core. The Associated Press has okayed the use of “they” to represent a lone person rather than striving to make that person male or female. I mean, I’m part of that LGBTQIIP group, and I understand the limitations of the binary divide, but I hate to see the clarity of he/she start to fade from language. If only we could invent pronouns that fit everyone, without re-purposing “they,” which has its own work to do.


5 thoughts on “Commas and windfalls”

  1. One loud vote for the Oxford comma, and an equally loud raspberry for the singular they. Conversations get confusing might fast when you take two kids to the barber and say, “They want a haircut,” and you know you only mean one of them. Grrr…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Agreed, go Oxford comma! Surely, you’re a fan of E. B. White? (As in Strunk&White)

    And the “they” issue: it bites me in the eye whenever I see it, but, like you, I haven’t come up with a good solution. I’ve seen numerous writers try to get around it by using the passive, writing ‘he/she’, using ‘he’ in one sentence, ‘she’ in the next … I don’t know which solution is worse! It must have been easier writing once upon a time, when ‘he’ was the norm. But back then most writers were male … aaand we get back to a gender argument.

    Let’s keep thinking about it.


    1. Thanks, quiverquotes. Yes, E.B. White–it’s always on my list to drive by his house in Maine, but I never get around to it. The Hallowed Ground. I bicycled to Dylan Thomas’s house in Wales, stood quivering outside of it for a while, and then bicycled on.

      As for “they,” I’ve been obsessing about it since I read the 1973 novel “The Cook and the Carpenter” by June Arnold, where all pronouns and identifying gender material is reduced to the word “na.” See the May 16, 2016 entry on for a discussion of this attempt.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Is his house still standing? That would definitely be on my list too. And Dylan Thomas — lucky you 🙂

        I haven’t read the novel you mention, but I’ve added it to my interminable Goodreads list, so someday … In the meantime I read the debuk article (and a couple of others) — that blog is something! Thanks for point ing it out. The discussion is exhaustive, but fairly inconclusive (or did I miss the point?), as to what the best way forward should be, other than, it’s not an insuperable tragedy if we continue to muddle through as we have done in the modern linguist era. And, indeed, there are more languages to consider than just English.


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