Ambiguity is the Fertile Soil of Litigation

Don’t ever think that a comma is not powerful.  Recently a court in Maine found wording of Maine’s overtime rules ambiguous due to the lack of that humble oxford comma. That ambiguity cost a company millions in overtime pay.

Ambiguity is the fertile soil of litigation.  A former law school professor used to say, “Words are the tools of our trade.”  She would make us chant it with her.  When we use language that leaves itself open to interpretation, we are inviting people to challenge us as to what our words actually mean.  In the context of a contract, that challenge can put us and our businesses in a very bad place.  That is what we saw in this highly publicized case with the Oxford, or Serial, Comma.  For the record, I love the Oxford Comma, and I have no idea how it became something that people felt was optional.  Some examples of problems that arise from misunderstandings that spring from lack of an Oxford Comma:

The Book Dedication:  To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

You get the idea.  While there are other ways to edit that list to make it clear, the Oxford Comma should/could have been used to clarify.  A mastery of language is not just a legal vocabulary, but also a grasp of grammar and basic words and grammar and stuff…  Did I say that right?

In the end, how you use the comma isn’t the issue.  If your contract doesn’t use the Oxford Comma, but is otherwise clear and concise, then you don’t have the same problem this company did.  The big problem here is that a missing comma could have such an impact on a company’s liability.  When you hire a lawyer to protect your business, make sure they know how to use their tools properly.

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