the million dollar comma

October 30, 2006

Commas in the news again. As an unrepentant misuser of commas, I have some sympathy with the company who misunderstood one in this case (reported in the Language Log). The argument over whether a company can cancel a contract after one year turns on a single comma in the 14-page contract. The answer is worth 1 million Canadian dollars.
‘The dispute is over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The regulator concluded that the second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the five-year term as well as its renewal. Therefore, the regulator found, the phone company could escape the contract after as little as one year.’
The other company, though, have a potential trump card- the French version, which is not included in the report, is apparently unambiguous in their favour. I guess that the French virgule, although even mightier than the English comma, would be used in the same way  to indicate a parenthetical phrase. So either the number or the position of the commas would be different in the two documents.
One or two other examples where commas can make a difference :

1. Jane walked on her pert bottom, wiggling provocatively.
2. The convict said the judge is a danger to society.
3. The Green party candidate who had the least money lost the election.
and one I spotted in an obituary a while ago:
4. He was brought up in Godalming in Surrey, the only child of a war veteran who had entered the print trade and a nurse.


4 Responses to “the million dollar comma”

  1. SilverTiger Says:

    Had the judge read Eats shoots and leaves, I wonder?

    I recall that Latin made no use of punctuation. The placing of words was supposed to indicate meaning.

  2. tomeemayeepa Says:

    I’m in favour of anything that reduces punctuation. Except going back to Latin.

  3. SilverTiger Says:

    The problem with Latin is that it was generally badly taught. If ever it were reinstated on school curricula, modern teaching methods could make a huge difference.

    Until about the middle of the 18th century, Latin was the language of culture and scholarship throughout Europe. This meant that all educated Europeans could communicate with one another in speech and writing, irrespective of their individual nationalities.

    The loss of Latin in this role (except in the Catholic Church) was a grievous blow to European unity. Lack of a common European language has once again become a matter of huge importance with the emergence of the EU.

    Given that nationalist pride prevents any one European language becoming the official language of the EU, restoration of Latin (as modernized by the Vatican) might be one solution to “European Babel”.

  4. carlos Says:

    this is crazy but cool

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