“For want of a comma, we have this case.” This is the first line of a court opinion issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit last March. At issue was the sometimes revered, and other times hated, Oxford comma. As a refresher, an Oxford comma (also referred to as a serial comma) is sometimes used in a sentence before the final entry in a series of three or more terms – for example, I went to the store to buy apples, oranges, and bananas. While not true in this case, in other cases the entire meaning of the sentence can be changed by whether an Oxford comma is used or not – for example, “With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.”

No Comma, No Certainty

The appeals court opinion involved a 2014 federal case filed in Maine in which a group of truck drivers sued their employer, a Portland-based dairy company, for unpaid overtime and lost wages. The truck drivers initially lost, but an appellate court reversed a lower court ruling in in their favor. The outcome of the case, which settled last week for $5 million, centered on the absence of an Oxford comma in a state law. The appellate court said the missing comma caused uncertainty and you can see for yourself.

Under state law at the time (it has since been revised, with semicolons added) activities that did not qualify for overtime included “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 court ruled that the absence of a comma after the word “shipment” made it unclear if the drivers were exempt from overtime for both packing for shipment as well as packing for distribution of the specified items or if they were exempt from packing only for shipment and for distribution on its own (without regard for packing).

The Power of Proper Punctuation

But what does all this have to do with the world of corporate investigations, you might wonder? A lot, in fact, because at the heart of any type of investigation is not just thorough and comprehensive research but nuanced research. And just as in the example above, misplaced or poorly used punctuation can make a world of difference.

Imagine you’re in the middle of a legal dispute in which you’re seeking a sizable judgment from the other party and you’ve hired an investigations firm like Hillard Heintze to identify assets owned by the subject. We have come across many examples of subjects forming multiple corporate entities with similar names, such as Main Street, LLC; Main Street LLC; and Main Street L.L.C. What if only one name was searched and not the other variations? We would have missed the other entities and potentially additional and unknown assets. Researching variations of a name, to include a placement of a comma or period in different ways, sometimes can be the differentiator in finding – or not finding – a piece of crucial information.

Searches and Semantics

Another example might be in how one searches an individual’s name. In one matter, our subject’s name was something similar to “J. John Doe.” We identified eight prior lawsuits naming him when including the period after the “J.” and two entirely different lawsuits when not including the period. What if we had only searched one way and identified eight – or only two – and not all 10 of the lawsuits? Social media research also requires the honed skill of using nuanced search strategies. For example, different social media platforms allow for different types of punctuation use in user and display names, such as Twitter which doesn’t allow the use of periods in user’s handles or hashtags. You can read more examples about this at an earlier blog I wrote, “What’s Your Punctuation Fingerprint? A Few Vignettes from an Experienced Investigator’s Case File.”

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