Punctuation Matters: 'Dear John' Letter and a 2-Million-Dollar Comma
Richard Nordquist is a freelance writer and former professor of English and Rhetoric who wrote college-level Grammar and Composition textbooks.
Updated February 05, 2019
So, fellow texters and tweeters, are you convinced that punctuation is unimportant—that commas, colons, and similar squiggles are just pesky reminders of a bygone era?
If so, here are two cautionary tales that just may change your mind.
What Love Is All About
Our first tale is a romantic one—or so it may appear. The story begins with an email that John received one day from his new girlfriend. Consider how pleased he must have felt to read this note from Jane:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?
Unfortunately, John was far from pleased. In fact, he was heartbroken. You see, John was familiar with Jane's peculiar ways of misusing punctuation marks. And so to decipher the true meaning of her email, he had to re-read it with the marks altered:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
This old grammarian's joke was made up, of course. But our second story really happened—in Canada, not so long ago.
Cost of a Misplaced Comma: $2.13 Million
If you happen to work in the legal division of Rogers Communications Inc., you've already learned the lesson that punctuation matters. According to Toronto's Globe and Mail for August 6, 2006, a misplaced comma in a contract to string cable lines along utility poles may cost the Canadian company a whopping $2.13 million.
Back in 2002, when the company signed off on a contract with Aliant Inc., the folks at Rogers were confident that they had locked up a long-term agreement. They were surprised, therefore, when in early 2005 Aliant gave notice of a hefty rate-hike—and even more surprised when regulators with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) backed their claim.
It's all right there on page seven of the contract, where it states that 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.”
The devil is in the details—or, more specifically, in the second comma. “Based on the rules of punctuation,” observed the CRTC regulators, the comma in question “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year's written notice.”
We'd explain the issue simply by pointing to principle #4 at our page on the Top Four Guidelines for Using Commas Effectively: use a pair of commas to set off interrupting words, phrases, or clauses.
Without that second comma after "successive five-year claims," the business about terminating the contract would apply only to successive terms, which is what Rogers' lawyers thought they were agreeing to. However, with the addition of the comma, the phrase "and thereafter for successive five-year terms" is treated as an interruption.
Certainly, that's how Aliant treated it. They didn't wait for that first "period of five years" to expire before giving notice of the rate hike, and thanks to the extra comma, they didn't have to.
“This is a classic case of where the placement of a comma has great importance,” Aliant said. Indeed.
In "Comma Law," an article that appeared in LawNow on March 6, 2014, Peter Bowal and Johnathon Layton reported the rest of the story:
Rogers Communications proved that its intended meaning in the subject contract clause was affirmed when the French version of the agreement was invoked. However, while it won that battle, Rogers ultimately lost the war and had to pay the price increase and hefty legal fees.
Sure, punctuation is picky stuff, but you never know when it's going to make a big difference.
The following events, industries, causes and emotions (yes, emotions) are observed all month long in April unless otherwise indicated. Even cannabis (fast becoming legalized), Florida tomatoes, celery, and soft pretzels are honored, beginning April 1 through April 30—every year.
- African-American Women's Fitness Month
- Alcohol Awareness Month
- Amateur Radio Month
- American Cancer Society Month
- Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month
- Black Women's History Month
- Bowel Cancer Awareness Month
- Celebrate Diversity Month
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- Confederate History Month
- Distracted Driving Awareness Month
- Financial Literacy Month
- Fresh Florida Tomato Month
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- Jewish-American Heritage Month
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- Mathematics Awareness Month
- Month of the Military Child
- National Autism Awareness Month
- National Better Hearing and Speech Month
- National Canine Fitness Month
- National Cannabis Awareness Month
- National Car Care Awareness Month
- National Child Abuse Awareness Month
- National Couple Appreciation Month
- National Deaf History Month (March 13 to April 15)
- National Decorating Month
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- National Fair Housing Month
- National Food Month
- National Fresh Celery Month
- National Garden Month
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- National Internship Awareness Month
- National Inventor's Month
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- National Landscape Architecture Month
- National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week (last full week in April)
- National Mental Health Month
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- National Siblings Day (April 10)
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International and One-Day Observances Stats
Because you may be in the business of working with internationals, we can not forget the participation of other countries. Here are a few international honorees, as well as some causes that are observed globally:
- April is International Guitar Month, recognized in several countries.
- Ontario, Canada recognizes April as Sikh Heritage Month.
- April is National Pet Month in the United Kingdom, although the U.S. waits until May to honor Postsits non-human family members.
- International Pillow Fight Day is observed on April 6 in 2019.
- World Autism Awareness Day also falls on April 2 in 2019.
- World Health Day is April 7, in 2019.