Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The million-dollar comma

Today is National Punctuation Day in the United States of America. To observe the day, I would like to cite a famous example of the importance of careful punctuation to clear writing.

It happened in 2006, in Canada. Rogers Communications, the large cable television provider, had a contract dispute with Bell Aliant, a telephone company. The dispute was worth 1 million Canadian dollars. A regulator settled the dispute by interpreting the meaning of a comma in the contract.

Here’s the gist of the story, extracted from an October 25, 2006, article in The New York Times.

“The dispute … is over the phone company’s attempt to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles. … Citing the ‘rules of punctuation,’ Canada’s telecommunications regulator recently ruled that the comma allowed Bell Aliant to end its five-year agreement with Rogers at any time with notice.

“Rogers argues that pole contracts run for five years and automatically renew for another five years, unless a telephone company cancels the agreement before the start of the final 12 months.

“The contract is a standard one for the use of utility poles, negotiated between a cable television trade association and an alliance of telephone companies. French and English versions were approved by a government regulator about six years ago.

“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 comma before ‘unless and until terminated’] 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 meaning of the clause was clear and unambiguous,’ ” the regulator wrote in a ruling in July.”

The Takeaway: Most of the time, your meaning does not hinge on the placement of a single punctuation mark. But sometimes it does. The only safe policy is to make it a habit to be careful with all punctuation.

Correction, November 7, 2008: When I published the above post, I was unaware that the 2006 interpretation of the comma had been reversed. On August 20, 2007, The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued a decision that stated that the French-language version of the Bell Aliant-Rogers contract clearly indicated that Bell Aliant could terminate the contract only “upon notice one year prior to the end of the initial term or one year prior to the end of a renewed term.” The 2007 decision also stated that the Commission did not have jurisdiction over access to poles anyway. Thanks to Toronto blogger Ingrid Sapona for her excellent coverage of this case, and thanks to Honolulu attorney Daniel Devaney for pointing me to Ms. Sapona’s blog.

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