The comma part 1: case of the million-dollar comma

When I tell people that I devote an entire three-hour class to teaching the comma, they are often incredulous. The comma seems like such a simple little device. But of all the punctuation marks we use in English it can certainly be the most costly. And by “costly” I mean, quite literally, “costing money.”


The most expensive comma in history was produced more than a century ago. At that time the United States government didn’t raise money from personal income taxes. Instead it depended on the revenue from duties: every item that came into the country was subject to a tariff or tax. Inevitably exceptions were made. For example, the government wanted to encourage agriculture, so it passed a law declaring duty did not need to be paid on fruit-plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.


In 1872 when the law was being revised, printers made a crucial error. For some reason they substituted a comma for the first hyphen. So instead of exempting just fruit-plants from duties, the law now said fruit, plants. And sharp-eyed businessmen spotted the difference. They argued that this revised law let them off the hook for payments on any kind of fruit that they imported into the country.


Of course legislators resisted. So the importers took the matter to court. For two years the government refused to back down and insisted on collecting duties on fruit (just not on “fruit-plants”). But in the end, the Supreme Court decided in favour of the importers. The government was ordered to pay back the more than $2 million in duties they had collected – a sum worth about $40 million in today’s currency.


Drawing of a dollar sign


Commas are often the subject of legal disputes. Here in Canada, two communications companies went to court not long ago over what has come to be known as the “million-dollar comma case.” Rogers Communications had made an agreement with Bell Aliant to rent some of its equipment. After a couple of years, Bell Aliant realized that they’d made an extremely bad deal: they believed that they should be getting at least a million more dollars from the arrangement. When Bell Aliant asked to renegotiate the terms, Rogers refused. It argued that the deal was binding for five full years and could not be changed earlier. So the two companies went to court over the critical clause in the agreement:


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 argument all came down to that second comma – the one after the word “terms. Bell Aliant argued that the second comma meant that the final clause – unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party – applied to the entire agreement, not just to the renewal periods. They believed that they could terminate the contract before the first five years were up. The court accepted Bell Aliant’s argument and decided in their favour.


The difficulty lies in the fact that commas have two major functions. The one most writers are familiar with has to do with breathing and rhythm. They use commas to show their readers where to pause and catch their breaths. But as we saw with the American fruit-plant case, commas also have a grammatical function which can change the meaning of a sentence.


Truthfully, in the Rogers vs. Bell Aliant case, that second comma was clearly inserted to mark a natural pause. Everyone involved in the case was perfectly aware that the intention was for the agreement to last for at least the first five years. Bell Aliant was just trying to find a loophole to get out of what it saw as a bad deal.


Of course Rogers immediately appealed the decision. And, ultimately, the first verdict was overturned, but in a uniquely Canadian manner. You see, as with all such agreements, the original contract was written in both official languages of the country – English and French. While the comma in the English version allowed Bell Aliant to spot a loophole, there was no such problem with the French version. So Rogers, after spending thousands of dollars in legal fees, finally won the case.


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