The Million-Dollar Comma

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Writing

Today’s New York Times features a story about the importance of punctuation — and while it is a distressing story for the the two Canadian companies embroiled in a contract dispute, it’s a joyous occasion for all of us who have (usually unsuccessfully) attempted to teach writers that a comma is never just a comma.

The article outlines the dispute between a cable television provider and a phone company over their contract; at the heart of the argument is a comma that tips the grammar in favor of the phone company, at a cost of 1 million Canadian dollars.

The sentence in question reads: “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.” Most grammar sticklers, including myself, will agree (as did Canada’s telecom regulator) that the placement of the second comma does, in fact, indicate that the contract can be terminated after one year, as the phone company asserts. The cable company disagrees, of course, and is arguing the rules with the help of an expert in contract language. It also has another resource: the French version of the contract, which in Canada has equal status under the law.

But as unusual as this case may be, I just have to take this opportunity to exhort all writers not to underestimate the comma — or any piece of punctuation, for that matter. One day you may be glad you paid attention.

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