Last week the Oxford comma made big news: a Maine trucking company was forced to pay overtime after the lack of a comma in a law was interpreted in favor of the truckers. Here is the blog post that talks about that article.
I researched a bit and found that there are several famous stories where punctuation has been crucial to interpretation of a law.
First, there is the “comma defense.” Was it going to be life in prison or the death penalty for Clifford L. Robinson? The federal sentencing code reads, “. . . death or life in prison, or a fine or both . . .” A fine for murder? Read more about this case here.
Then there is the case of the comma versus the hyphen that cost America about $40 million in an 1872 tariff act. This was one item in a list of items that were exempt from taxes:
- Fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation
The way the item is written seems to say that fruits are free of tariff. Not so. The comma should have been a hyphen!
- Fruit-plants, tropical and semi-tropical . . .”
Aha! So fruit is not free! Here is the rest of the story.
The next comma story concerns the always controversial Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
That second comma (the one I have put in red) caused the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down DC’s ban on handguns. They said that the comma divided the amendment into clauses. I personally have some problems with the whole thing: Where is the hyphen in well-regulated? Why are militia, state, and arms initial capped? And I don’t really understand the two-clauses bit. The whole thing makes no sense to me as written. It isn’t even a correct sentence. I would use just one comma, the one in red. Then, at least the sentence makes some sense! What do you think? Here is the article.
The final story here is one that cost a Canadian company about a million bucks. The story is about a dispute between Rogers Communications of Toronto, a cable television provider, and Bell Aliant, a telephone company. The dispute concerns a contract that runs for five years and automatically renews for another five years until a telephone company cancels the agreement before the start of the final 12 months. Here is the sentence in question:
“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 notice in writing by either party.”
It was concluded that the second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the first and second sections of the sentence. That seems pretty obvious. Here is the article.
Warning: Watch your punctuation — or write more clearly and avoid legalese!
Grammar Diva News
- I am in the middle of writing my next book, The Best Little Dictionary of Confused Words and Malapropisms. It should be out by May or June. It is the third and final book in the series with The Best Little Grammar Book Ever (second edition) and The Best Little Grammar Workbook Ever. Each book can be purchased and used separately, but I may also package them as a set.
- I will be speaking to the Novato Sunrise chapter of the Rotary club in April.
- Both the Mt. Diablo and Fremont chapters of California Writers Club have invited me to speak. I will be speaking to Mt. Diablo in November (I think) and Fremont in 2018. Seems so far away! (because it is)
If you have any ideas for blog posts or questions or comments, please contact me!