There is a brilliant story covering the press rounds about a $10M lawsuit in the US that has been won due to the lack of a comma in a state law. The specific comma in question is an “Oxford comma” which has been fought over for years as part of a pedantic war concerning the rights and wrongs of the English language.

Taking an innocuous example: “I love pasta, rice and chips.” Would you ever place a comma after the word “rice”? If you do, then you are a user of the Oxford comma.

Many people argue that there is no need. However, what about the sentence: “I love pasta, rice and fish and chips.” Are you in love both with fish and with chips, or the dish “fish and chips”. In this case, the Oxford comma can help to clarify that we are talking specifically about the dish: “I love pasta, rice, and fish and chips.”

Now, take this over to the US legislation stating that businesses do not need to pay overtime for jobs that include:

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.

Do we mean:

  1. We don’t pay overtime to a specific group of US employees that pack goods that will be either shipped or distributed, or;
  2. We don’t pay overtime to two groups of employees – those that pack goods for shipment and those that distribute the goods

Pedantic – yes. Expensive – definitely. Had an Oxford comma been used in the sentence (i.e. “… freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment, or distribution of…”) then there would have been no court case.

However, due to the lack of Oxford comma, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has just decided that the sentence is too ambiguous in nature, and so has ruled in favour of a group of drivers that claim they had been unfairly denied overtime since 2012. The cost – $10M to the New England dairy company that had employed the drivers.

This is not the first time that the Oxford comma has proven to be very costly – both financially or otherwise. For example, in 2006 there was a $1M lawsuit between cable operators in Canada over the use of a comma that allowed one of the companies to cancel a major contract after one year, not five. There is also the rather more prosaic argument about the US Second Amendment and the use of the Oxford comma in terms of whether the “right to bear arms” was a reference to the people themselves, or the militia that were guarding them[1]?

The key point here is that businesses should not only take note from a legal perspective, but also consider this more holistically in terms of how you communicate with your customers or staff. If a simple comma can lead to a $10M fine, imagine what confusing instructions manuals, complicated legal jargon or badly explained applications processes could do.

Communications are a critical element of the overall experience that you give to your customers. In a YouGov poll of 7,000 consumers worldwide, 56% reported that they would not use a business again if they had a bad experience. When asked why – the top five reasons all linked directly to poor communications.

As businesses, you need to be constantly testing, qualifying and challenging what you say and do in order to make sure that your customers and staff are on board and going in the right direction. This is not just in terms of what you communicate in text, but also refers to everything from the way in which your staff interact with customers through to your overall tone of voice as a business. Creating a great communications strategy is as important as building the right systems and processes that help to deliver your products and services. Do it well and your customers will love you. Do it badly and your business will suffer.

As Lynne Truss’s panda stated after entering the café, eating the sandwich, firing a gun at customers and then heading for the door – “I’m a panda, look it up”. The manual did say “Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”.

[1] The District of Columbia v Heller