Language

To Comma or Not to Comma?

I came across this entry in Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation. (Although based on British English usage, it is still a great book.)

On his deathbed in April 1991, Graham Green corrected and signed a typed document which restricts access to his papers at Georgetown University. Or does it? The document, before correction, stated: “I, Graham Greene, grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.” Being a chap who had corrected proofs all his life, Greene automatically added a comma after “excluding any other” and died the next day without explaining what he meant by it. A great ambiguity was thereby created. Are all other researchers excluded from quoting the material? Or only other biographers?

Which do you think he meant to write? Comment below.

Expensive Fruit

There is a true story from the late 1800s where the U.S. tariff law included a comma that did not belong. It ended up costing the government nearly $40 million of lost revenue in today’s money (about $2 million back then). The original law created in 1870 said that “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” could be exempt from tariffs on imports.

In 1872 the law was revised and a comma added between fruit and plants created a series comma (“fruit, plants, tropical and semi-tropical”). It changed the meaning to make fruit of either kind to be tariff free. Took two years for the error to be corrected.

Oops.

Expensive Cable Costs

In 2006 there was a problem on page 7 of a 14-page agreement between two Canadian companies, Rogers Communications and Aliant Communications. The contract for five years allowed Rogers to string their cables across Aliant’s 91,000 utility poles at a set licensing price per utility pole. One year after the agreement was signed, Aliant canceled the deal and said the price was going up. Why? Because the contract allowed them to cancel before the end of the five-year term. That contract sentence in question reads:

[The agreement] “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

One way to read it: The contract is good for five years from the signing date. And auto-renews for five more years unless terminated with a year’s notice. But cannot be canceled during the first five years.

Another way to read it: The contract can be terminated at any time as long as a one-year notice is provided.

What the ruling by the communications regulator stated: “Based on the rules of punctuation,” the comma in question “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year’s written notice,”

The tripling of the license fee cost Rogers an estimated $2 million extra.

Funny Examples

Let’s eat, Grandma.
or
Let’s eat Grandma.

Commas are important people!
or
Commas are important, people!

A woman without her man is nothing.
or
A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Man bacon makes anything good.
or
Man, bacon makes anything good.

How to cook crack and clean a crab.
Step one: use commas.

I like cooking dogs and kids.
or
I like cooking, dogs, and kids.

We may laugh at things like this, but commas matter.

[A much shorter version of this post ran in July 2012.]

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