Grammarians rejoice in the $10 million comma

Image 20170320 8883 12pwn9m
The most expensive punctuation in the world…
Gayle Dee/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Roslyn Petelin, The University of Queensland

Portland-based company Oakhurst Dairy will potentially owe US$10 million to 75 milk-truck drivers in the US state of Maine because of a missing comma in a legal clause. The Conversation

Last week, Judge David J. Barron upheld an appeal in a class-action lawsuit, opening his opinion with: “For want of a comma, we have this case.”

Three dairy-truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy in 2014 for four years of unpaid overtime wages. The case hinged on the missing comma after “packing for shipment” in the following clause of Maine state law, which lists exemptions from overtime:

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 missing comma, in this case, would have separated “packing for shipment” and “distribution” into distinct activities, both exempt from overtime. Without the comma, the drivers argued, the law refers only to the act of packing, for the purpose of either shipping or distributing.

There are other grammatical issues with this clause (neatly unpacked in more detail by Mary Norris in The New Yorker) but David Webbert, a lawyer for the drivers, told The New York Times: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”


The contentious comma

This contentious comma is the serial comma, often called the “Oxford comma” and in some circles the “Harvard comma”. It comes before the final “and” or “or” in a series (a list of three or more items). For example, “Stone fruits include apricots, plums, and nectarines”.

Although some think it’s clunky, the Maine case strikes a blow for the importance of clarity. Consider this particularly spectacular example, supposedly from a TV listing in The Times:

By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

There are two lists in this example that omit the serial comma, although only the second really demands it to eliminate ambiguity. (It’s worth noting that, even with an additional comma that would prevent Nelson Mandela from being a dildo collector, the sentence is so poorly phrased he could conceivably still be an 800-year-old demigod.)

Maine legislature drafting guidelines actually recommend against using the serial comma, advising that any confusing sentence be entirely rewritten. But the appellate judge is obviously a fan, saying: “We would be remiss not to note the clarifying virtues of serial commas that other jurisdictions recognize.”

He elaborates by stating that both chambers of the federal Congress warn against omitting the serial comma “to prevent any misreading that the last item is part of the preceding one” and says that only seven of the American states (including Maine) “either do not require or expressly prohibit the use of the serial comma”.

I’m with the judge and the other 43 states. I am a lifetime devotee of the serial comma, believing that it ensures clarity and aesthetic consistency. For reasons that I have never been able to fathom, its mention inevitably evokes fierce controversy. More than 1,000 people commented on The Guardian website within 24 hours of the comma story being published last week.

You’re with me, or against me, or ambivalent

People either strongly advocate its use at all times (as I do); weakly (in my opinion) allow its use only if its absence could cause ambiguity; or dismiss it altogether by recommending that the sentence be rewritten so that ambiguity is not an issue.

Those who make exceptions to the “no-serial-comma rule” when a sentence would be confusing include the Australian government in its Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers. This doesn’t even mention the term “serial comma”, stating: “sometimes a comma is placed between the last two items to ensure clarity”.

The New Yorker uses the serial comma, according to its own style guide. The New York Times follows The Associated Press Stylebook, which gives a somewhat ambiguous (or possibly contradictory) example:

In a series use commas to separate items but no comma before a conjunction e.g. ‘We bought eggs, milk and cheese at the store.’

What’s happened to the comma that we have been told to use between the “milk” and “cheese” items?

Beatrice Potter used the serial comma.
The Original Peter Rabbit Miniature Collection (1909)

Most key academic style guides recommend the serial comma. Robert Ritter, author of The Oxford Guide to Style, enthusiastically endorses it. It has been part of Oxford University Press style for more than a century. The quintessential English author Beatrix Potter used it. I have a china mug telling me that “Once upon a time there were four little rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter”.

On the other hand, educational guidelines have a more confused approach. The UK National Curriculum horrifyingly warns that “the mark will not be awarded if a serial comma is used in a list of simple items. For example, this would be unacceptable: We bought apples, cheese, and milk.”

What happens in the Australian educational context?

New South Wales provides teachers with advice about the serial comma and other punctuation marks that is appallingly written and includes an egregious punctuation error: “Its used … ”

Use an ‘Oxford comma’ or it can be referred to as the ‘serial comma,‘ to clarify list items that are more than one. [sic]

The Queensland Curriculum Authority disappointingly advises that “No comma is needed before the ‘and’ that precedes the final item in the list”.

Readers’ comprehension of our writing is paramount. The serial comma aids clarity and it should be taught in all Australian schools.

The Maine case was not only marred by missing commas, but generally shoddy language use. The law had been revised since it was first drafted but it had not been clarified. Where were the grammarians when this law was being drafted?

It’s very possible that, whether Oakhurst Dairy fights on or not, the serial comma will join the ranks of eponymous punctuation marks like the greengrocers’ apostrophe as the “milk-truck drivers’ comma”.

Roslyn Petelin will be available for an author Q&A Wednesday March 22, from 2.30pm to 3.30pm AEDT. Post your questions in the comments section below.

Roslyn Petelin, Associate Professor in Writing, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Lauren Ayton in #CommsCorner


122819pictureIn our first Communicator’s Corner for 2017 we chat with scientist, communicator, and new mum @DrLaurenAyton. We know Lauren as a Hugh Rogers Fellow through our friends at the Melbourne Boston Sister Cities Association. She’s also the Bionic Eye Clinical Program Leader and Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Eye Research Australia & The University Of Melbourne. And she’s been known to talk science on 3RRR’s Einstein a Go Go.

Your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?

I am a clinician-scientist, working in the field of vision restoration. My professional background is as an optometrist, and I still work in the clinic occasionally, but my passion now is research. I have been incredibly lucky in my career, and have been able to work on some truly amazing projects that aim to save sight – from a laser treatment in early age-related macular degeneration to my current role in the Bionic Eye programs. I am the Lead Clinical Investigator for both Melbourne-based bionic eye projects (based at the Centre for Eye Research Australia, and at Monash University), and in these roles, I am responsible for the coordination of the clinical trials for novel bionic eye devices. In my personal life, I am a new Mum! My husband and I welcomed our son Charlie 8.5 months ago, and he is an absolute delight and my greatest achievement. 

Tell us about your typical day in communications?

I use communication strategies and methods in many ways in my work; firstly, for patient discussions, so that I can make sure they are aware of their eye condition, treatment options, and the like. In my research roles, accurate and effective communication is absolutely vital. The Bionic Eye project is a very emotive concept, and it is important that people are well aware of the realities of vision restoration technologies. Whilst the work is very exciting, we are not able to restore “normal” sight to people who are blind, and the technology is still in its relative infancy. There is no “typical” day for me – I might spend one day talking to journalists, the next with patients, and then over to a school for a talk about eyes.This is why I love my job!

When did you first know you wanted to work in communications?

In high school, I wanted to be a journalist. I was lucky enough to meet the most influential teacher of my schooling, Mr Glasgow, who was a passionate scientist and an amazing communicator. He instilled a love of science in me, and made me realise how exciting a scientific career could be. I was in Year 11 when the human genome was fully sequenced, and I still remember that he spent our entire class talking about the potential ramifications of that achievement. From that moment, I wanted to be involved in the next generation of ground-breaking discoveries!

Who’s your communication hero/mentor?

There are so many! Of the big-name, international communication gurus, I have always had a soft spot for Sir David Attenborough. His work to communicate environmental stories to the public is just beautiful – educational and artistic at the same time. On a more local level, my mentor is Dr Shane Huntington, who hosts the science communication radio show I present on (Einstein A Go Go, Sundays 11am- 12pm, 102.7FM). Shane is a spectacular communicator, and is a sought-after public speaker. I first met Shane when I did an interview for the University of Melbourne UpClose podcast, and he has been the most supportive ally in my science communication career since that time.

Which tools can’t you live without?

I am sure I am not alone in being completely and utterly addicted to my smart phone! Whilst it does make it hard to leave work behind sometimes, I love the ability to be flexible in where and when I do my work.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

As a research academic, my biggest challenge is the lack of security in funding. This is the time of year where all academics go to ground, furiously writing applications for research grants that have an appalling low success rate (close to 10% now for our main federal programs). The amount of time spent trying to get money to keep your work alive is ludicrous, and becomes an extra challenge when you must provide for a growing family.

Tell us about the best campaign you’ve ever worked on?

One of the most exciting media experiences I have had was the announcement of the world-first clinical trial of our novel bionic eye device in Melbourne. With the help of our wonderful media consultants (Mira Image), we prepared a series of media interviews in 2012 to make the announcement. It was incredibly exciting to wait until the embargo was lifted and the news hit the media – it was international news, and finally my family and friends knew what I had been up to in the prior months!

Which campaign do you most admire?

I am a fan of the #LikeAGirl campaign by the US company Always, in which young girls are asked to “run like a girl”, “throw like a girl” and “fight like a girl”. They approach the tasks with gusto and unbridled enthusiasm, like girls always do! However, when older participants are asked the same, they act out the stereotypes; unconsciously deciding that “like a girl” is an insult. I love the way that the video makes you stop and think. As a passionate advocate for gender equality, I believe it is these tactics that will make people stop and think about our responses to these terms. Words can hurt! And the fact that the video has had over 63 million hits on YouTube is evidence of its power.

What’s been the biggest change to communication/marketing/public relations since you began your career?

Science communication is a rapidly evolving field. When I finished my PhD eight years ago, there was very little emphasis placed on the need to communicate our work. However, science is publically funded, and working towards publically beneficial goals, and so it is essential that people be informed about the work. This is now changing, and there are many initiatives to help promote science and science communication, and it’s an exciting time!

If you had to cut/keep something in your communication budget, what would it be?

I think there should always be support for early career researchers, PhD students and young scientists to learn communication skills; that will always be something I aim to provide for those I work with.

What quality do you look for in your communication team members?

I think the most important quality in a science communicator is passion. When someone loves their work, and loves science in general, it shines through.

What’s your favourite brand?

This tends to change day to day with me! I am not particularly loyal to brands, and always am open to new suggestions from colleagues and friends. I am a fan of Who Gives a Crap, though; an Australian-owned toilet paper company who use environmentally friendly products and donate half their profits to build toilets in developing countries. I love that they started with a hilarious crowd-funding appeal (with one of the founders sitting on a toilet for 50 hours!), and they also have very cool wrapping.

What book/blog do you think every communicator should read?

Due to my recent motherhood and decrease in free time, I am a huge fan of science communication podcasts. They are great to listen to during your commute, or when walking the baby in the pram! There are a number of brilliant examples of these podcasts, but I do love the Naked Scientists (UK), RadioLab (USA) and ABC’s The Science Show (Australia).

What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?

Just do it! I was so nervous before starting with science communication events; as a scientist, you are so used to specialising in specific areas, and it can be nerve-wracking to talk about your work without the jargon. A few years down the track, and I count science communication as one of the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my job; I’m glad I just gave it a shot!

Finish this sentence: ‘Communication is…’

Essential in every aspect of life.

Return of the #CommsCorner




After a short hiatus, our regular programming of the #CommsCorner will return next Tuesday.

Join us again in 2017 as we speak with communicators from around Australia and across the globe in our regular #CommsCorner conversations.

We’ll find out what makes them tick, what inspires them, and who they turn to for advice.

Check back next week (or sign up for email updates) for our chat with a scientist with an eye on communication.

In the meantime, enjoy our conversations with communicators from our collection of #CommsCorners.

C is for celebration


Today. Thursday, 24 November – the last Thursday in November, Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States, officially kicking off the holiday season. In fact, more people in the US celebrate Thanksgiving than Christmas – making it the country’s most loved holiday.

In 1939, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to create a boost to retailers before Christmas. The precursor to what is now known as “Black Friday” – the biggest shopping day of the year.

If you are interested in the history of this holiday check out Melanie Kirkpatrick’s fascinating book, “Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience”.

But if pop culture is more your thing, you can read all about what the late Joan Rivers served up as a thanksgiving feast.

Many celebrities get involved and share their thanksgiving stories and time.

And in New York there’s the annual and colourful Macy’s Parade.

Wherever you are, however your year has been, take time today to be reflective and give thanks for the things important to you.

Happy celebrations from all of us at the c word.

Digital disruption creating new digital reality – even for lawyers


6560824157_9868a5037e_oLast week, Victoria University’s Sir Zelman Cowen Centre  hosted an excellent conference exploring themes of digital disruption in the legal profession.

It follows a recent Wired article which put the case that “the practice of law is one area of expertise that has remained stubbornly resistant to disruption”.

As a generalisation,  lawyers do tend to be conservative and risk-averse. Their quest for perfection is at odds with the experimental approach that sees failure as a necessary part of development and innovation.

However, at last weeks conference many innovative themes and ideas emerged. There were lots of positive indications that the legal industry is ripe for disruption.

In 1965, Gordon Moore made a prediction that would set the pace for our modern digital revolution. From careful observation of an emerging trend, Moore foresaw that computing would dramatically increase in power, and decrease in relative cost, at an exponential pace.

Today, a proliferation of technology is influencing consumer interactions and expectations.

Customers are becoming far less accepting of rigid processes when dealing with businesses, and legal firms are no exception to this. Many new startup law firms like Nest Legal are putting customers at the core of everything they do. In the process, they are redefining the customer experience.

Technology is driving significant changes in the way businesses operate and create products.

Organisations – even law firms and our legal system –  are re-engineering and disrupting their own business model through innovation to keep up with the velocity of change, while continuing to create value.

This digital era has also created challenges and risks that didn’t exist two decades ago.

When assessing the implications of digital disruption, consider the fact that new digital business models are the principal reason why just over half of the names of companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000 – just 16 years ago!

There has also been a paradigm shift in the definition of disruption, and yet, we are only at the beginning of what the World Economic Forum calls the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, characterised not only by mass adoption of digital technologies.

The conference highlighted that many law firms will increasingly be using predictive analytics and see a lot of focus on technology, in areas such as blockchain, contract automation and artificial intelligence.

In the meantime, digital innovation is enabling an exciting wave of change for  legal professionals willing to risk the ride.

Briar Lloyd in the #CommsCorner



This week, we revisit this post because our official c-word correspondent Briar Lloyd is in the US to bring us live coverage from the 2016 Election … and to have a holiday! But mostly to bring us live coverage!

This week we chat with @briarlloyd who is the Project Coordinator for our client the Shared Value Project. Briar moved across the Tasman from New Zealand and completed a degree at the University of Melbourne before forging a career in corporate social responsibility, communications and technology. When she’s not working, Briar can be found working on independent Australian films, or participating in conversations at the Henley Club. Briar is particularly interested in digital and new economies, cities and urban development, mobile banking technologies and access to services, and intraprenership and advocating for younger generations.

Your elevator statement – who are you professionally and personally?

I’m a hard working and determined third-culture kid working as part of the Shared Value Project team to change the role of business in society, and drive adoption and implementation of shared value strategies among leading companies, civil society and government organisations.

I love meeting new people and building strong relationships, often need to restrain myself from joining committees in my spare time, and am an enthusiast for arts and culture, international relations, reading, writing, cooking for my annoying food intolerances, working on my calendar al la Leslie Knope, and the Oxford comma.

Tell us about your typical day in communications?

I’m definitely a morning person so like to get straight into things – first up checking for any urgent emails, news stories, or social media issues or conversations that need addressing, and then straight into some big ticket important tasks that might need a lot of clear-headed energy like writing copy, reports, project plans, or really important emails that might need some thoughtful words. I try to get any big important things over and done with first and then the rest of the day I’ll work on a range of tasks from managing events and campaigns, liaising with our member organisations, scheduling social media, meeting and liaising with media, writing briefings, managing our website, and other day to day tasks for the organisation, and then plan my next day. However it can be completely different when a lot of energy needs to be going into a big campaign or project, or when those days pop up where you need to be really reactive and responsive to unexpected issues or occurrences. Classic comms.

When did you first know you wanted to work in communications?

Growing up I was always obsessed with any form of media, whether it be magazines, books, TV, film, current affairs and pop culture, or just the internet in general. When I was studying media and communications, journalism, and politics and international studies at university, I really came to understand the importance of media and communications as a means to transfer information and knowledge, and shape society. From then on I knew it was important to be able to be to utilise communications in my work in some way, as it’s something than is relevant and important to all industries and sectors.

Who’s your communication hero/mentor?

I really admire/enjoy career stalking: Audrey Gelman – CEO and Co-founder of The Wing, previous press secretary to New York Comptroller Scott Stringer and champion on his campaign, re-launcher of the Downtown 4 Democracy political action committee, and spokesperson for Rock the Vote amongst many other things. Katherine Power and Hillary Kerr – co-founders and co-CEOs of Clique Media. Zoe Foster-Blake – author of books and columns, of which Channel Ten is adapting her book The Wrong Girl, Founder of Go-To Skincare, and general sassy social media extraordinaire. Mia Freedman – co-founder and Creative Director of Mamamia for her leadership, no filter, and the suite of excellent Mamamia podcasts. I am also really loving what Chelsea Handler is doing a the moment with her show Chelsea on Netflix, combining politics, current affairs, comedy, pop culture, and learning in an accessible, ‘big picture’ way.

Which tools can’t you live without?

My Apple Calendar synced across my various devises, can’t operate without it, I am crazy for planning and scheduling so that I can get the most out of each day.

Hootsuite for scheduling and planning social media content ahead of time across numerous channels.

The Skimm, a fantastic app, as they say definitely making it easer to be smarter by breaking down current affairs and what’s going on in the world into fresh daily editorial content, along with excellent recommendations into the latest books and long form articles to read.

What are the biggest challenges in your role?

I think finding the balance between being strategic and reactive is always a challenge, so it’s a matter of being conscious of it and trying the best you can.

Tell us about the best campaign you’ve ever worked on?

Apart from my current work, a really stand out opportunity I was lucky to have early on in my career as an intern, was working on the ‘This is GREAT Britain’ campaign. This was an amazing global campaign initiated in 2012 around the timing of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and I really enjoyed the international relations component, which is one of my major interest areas. It was great to see this play out in an Australian context working on one of the events here around the Grand Prix. I really enjoyed the mix of stakeholders involved in the occasion where you had British Minister’s next to Hamish and Andy, Russel Howcroft, Jackie Stewart, British Consulate representatives, along with a British rock bank. I think this is what made it such an engaging campaign that is still continuing today.

 Which campaign do you most admire?

I am fascinated with Obsessee at the moment, developed by the aforementioned Clique Media targeted at Gen Z, and exists solely on social media as a content brand and community, no website. I’m older than the target market but really enjoy all the Snapchat content, and seeing how the model works for monetising branded social media content is incredibly interesting.

Locally I think Zoe Foster-Blake has been amazing with Go-To skin care. Not only a sensational product, but every step of customer interaction has incredibly witty messaging from their website, social media, packaging, and delivery notifications. It’s only available online, but the brand is fantastic at building relationship with customers.

What’s been the biggest change to communication/marketing/public relations since you began your career?

There are so many more channels to navigate especially with social media. When I started there was a huge emphasis around Twitter and ‘words’ still, and now we have evolved to so much more imagery, video, and interactive based content such as with Instagram and Snapchat, and then completely new things like virtual reality which one of the organisations I work with is trialing to engage with customers. There has also been a similar change for journalists who are now expected not just to write articles but also various other forms of content such as videos and click-worthy images for social media, so if you are working in PR it’s a matter of being conscious of how you can really package a story or pitch. On a side note I’ve also really enjoyed the return of the podcast.

If you had to cut/keep something in your communication budget, what would it be?

I think it’s incredibly important to carve out time and budget to make the effort to spend time with key stakeholders and meet them in person. Meet an important media contact for lunch or coffee. You can’t beat real life relationship building.

What quality do you look for in your communication team members?

Someone who takes initiative, is interested and willing to build their knowledge, a good researcher, knows how to target the appropriate audience, enthusiastic, and is willing to go the extra mile.

What’s your favourite brand?

Uniqlo, Vanity Fair, Monocle, Wholefoods, Honest Company, and I really like how Go-To and Glossier have really evolved the beauty industry to focus more on real women in real life and customers giving life to products not the other way around, which is what the beauty industry has been based on for a long time.

What book/blog do you think every communicator should read?

Someone once prescribed me ‘Politics and the English Language’ by George Orwell which is worth the read, and re-read. I also highly recommend Contagious: Why Things Catch On, anything relevant to the industry or clients you are working with, and something hard copy like a magazine once and while as you can come across new information and content that you might not otherwise online.

What tips do you wish you’d known starting out in communications?

A proper night’s sleeps makes all the difference to your ability to do good work – something applicable to all fields.

Finish this sentence: ‘Communication is…’

…a means transfer knowledge and connect with others.