Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why is grammar so very important?

Time to grab your copy of Strunk & White and ponder this for a bit:


A contract dispute in Canada centers on what's being called a million-dollar comma. Canada's telecommunications regulator has decided that a misplaced comma in a contract concerning telephone poles will allow a company to save an estimated 2 million dollars (Canadian).

***

The contract between cable company Rogers Communications and telephone company Bell Aliant allowed Rogers to use Bell Aliant's telephone polls. Bell Aliant sought to get out of the deal.

Canada's telecommunications regulator said the case hinged on the placement of the second comma in this clause:

"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."

Rogers had insisted the contract was good for at least five years; Aliant said the comma denotes that the deal can be terminated at five years -- or before, as long as one year's notice is given.


The devil is always in the details.

Many thanks to Nicole for sending me the link.


5 comments:

Ryane said...

I love it...death by comma.

=-) How long will both sides be able to draw out this lawsuit over a comma?? If a judge decides in favor of one side, can the other keep appealing based soley upon that one little grammatical mark?

I think I have mentioned this before and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is a very good book if you are interested at all in grammar.

alienvoord said...

It seems that the rules of Strunk and White or Lynne Truss don't have much to do with this problem.

http://heideas.blogspot.com/2006/08/case-of-2000000-comma-and-ambiguous.html

Dara said...

Ryane: Disclaimer: It's Canada, so what do I know?

At least in the U.S., in the grand scheme of giant corporate litigation, two million dollars is miniscule. (Insert vignette of Dr. Evil saying "one million dollars" and everyone laughing here.) With legal fees, etc., I'm somewhat surprised they didn't settle, and -- assuming litigation in Canada is virtually identical to that in U.S. -- I'd be even more surprised if they don't eventually settle in the course of appeals.

Alienvoord: Thanks for stopping by! Heidi's blog is neat!

Oh, and yeah, I agree that Strunk & White's version of the comma rule is waaaay too simplistic to sort this one out. But it's the one I keep on my desk, along with Bryan Garner's Legal Writing in Plain English.

alienvoord said...

You may or may not be interested in linguist Geoffrey Pullum's opinion of Elements of Style...
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001604.html

Dara said...

Very interesting -- and I pretty much agree.

To me, the only useful parts are the first two chapters -- on the elementary rules of usage and composition. The rest is quite outdated and arbitrary.

Unfortunately, the legal profession is full of people who adore the book.