The Little Comma – Don’t Underestimate Its Power!

That little insignificant little squiggle, the comma, has the power to do or undo, make or break businesses. Its presence, absence or misplacement has proved expensive for businesses.

Here are a few instances of where the power of the comma has made organizations regret not having paid more attention to grammar...

Rogers Communication and Bell Aliant

The dispute between Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, and a telephone company in Atlantic Canada, Bell Aliant, was over the phone company’s attempt to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles. But the argument was around a single comma in the 14-page contract.

Back in 2002, Rogers Communications signed a support structure agreement with a fellow communications company, Bell Aliant, for the use of Bell's transmission poles at a contract price of $9.60 for each pole per year. The agreement was for a five-year term, set to expire in May 2007. Two years later, Bell Aliant's parent company, NB Power, decided to regain control of the transmission poles and raise the rates to $18.91. To do so, they used a misplaced comma in the original 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 court ruled that the second comma in this sentence allowed Bell Aliant to terminate the agreement with only one year's notice to Rogers, with a calculated additional cost to Rogers of $2.13 million.

Comma costs the US Federal Government $2 million in revenue...

The Tariff Act of 1872 included a provision listing goods that were exempt from being charged a foreign import tariff on shipments entering the United States. The provision declared that all “foreign fruit-plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” would be exempt from the tariff.

A clerical error substituted a comma in place of a hyphen when the bill was being duplicated, so that all “foreign fruit, plants” could now be admitted free from duty, with the extra comma separating fruit and plants into individual categories. 

The United States Treasury was ordered to reimburse the money paid by fruit merchandisers until the next session of Congress could correct the unclear phrasing and restore the tariff. The federal government is estimated to have lost more than $2 million in revenue – nearly 0.70 percent of the national budget – or the equivalent of $40 million when adjusted for inflation.

Some more examples...

A misplaced comma in a list can actually sabotage the intended meaning: “Neocon economists often claim a large, black economy turbo-powers growth.” The writer meant a large black economy, not a large and black one, which is what this says.

Look at this sentence from a well-known newspaper: “Part of the report will heavily criticise a so-called power culture among the Dublin bishops who have been accused of not taking the allegations seriously.”

As written, the words beginning “who have been accused” convey that only some Dublin bishops have been accused. The writer in fact meant to say all of the bishops had been accused, so needed to insert a comma after “bishops”:

“Part of the report will heavily criticise a so-called power culture among the Dublin bishops, who have been accused of not taking the allegations seriously.”

If you remove the portion after the comma: “Part of the report will heavily criticise a so-called power culture among the Dublin bishops” you can see this still conveys the desired meaning that all the Dublin bishops and their so-called power culture have been criticised.

So, acknowledge the power of the little comma...

You wouldn’t think a simple comma could completely change the meaning, but it can and does all the time, which is why understanding how commas work is so important.

Keith Waterhouse advised: “Commas are not condiments. Do not pepper sentences with them unnecessarily.” Quite so, but a well-placed one is the difference between “what is this thing called love?” and “what is this thing called, love?” And between “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!””