When a single comma costs millions
AH, the humble comma. So small. So fleeting. Yet so divisive.
People like to joke a lot about the importance of punctuation; a lone punctuation mark can be the difference between an innocent "Let's eat, grandma!" and a sinister "Let's eat grandma!"
But in some cases, the comma goes well beyond that. If you make one tiny error, it can cost you millions of dollars.
'NO PRICE TOO HIGH'
You may have heard the old anecdote about a rich woman who was travelling through Europe around the turn of the century, when she came across a very expensive diamond ring.
She sent a telegram to her husband: "Have found beautiful bracelet. Price seventy-five thousand dollars. May I buy it?"
Her husband immediately responded: "No, price too high." But the telegraph operator didn't realise there was a pause between the first two words, so his wife received the response, "No price too high."
Ecstatic, she bought the bracelet and came back to show it to her man. In a fury, he filed a lawsuit against the telegraph company and won.
From then on, telegraph operators were required to spell out punctuation with "stop" and "pause" rather than use symbols, to avoid the same mistake.
Variations of this anecdote has been making the rounds for over a century; consider it the #FakeNews meme of the WWI era, if you will.
According to Snopes, there's no actual evidence of this lawsuit, but it serves as a cautionary reminder of the importance of grammar.
Unfortunately, a lot of companies didn't get the memo. And it cost them millions of dollars.
THE CASE OF THE $13 MILLION COMMA
Last year, Portland-based company Oakhurst Dairy was threatened with a $US10 million ($AU13 million) payout to 75 milk-truck drivers over a single missing comma.
It started when three dairy-truck drivers sued the company in 2014 for four years of unpaid overtime wages.
Here is the contract clause, which lists exemptions from overtime:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
Meat and fish products; and
What's unclear in this case is whether "distribution" is covered, or whether it forms part of the act of packing.
Without the comma (in this case, it would have been an Oxford comma), the singular act is "packing for shipment or distribution". Truck drivers do not pack food for either shipment or distribution - their sole job is delivery, or distribution.
Without the comma, the drivers were thus not exempt from overtime payments, and Oakhurst Dairy owed them a massive amount of money.
Lawyers for the defence admitted the statement was ambiguous, but argued it had a "latent clarity", according to The New Yorker.
In an argument that would make grammar nerds salivate, the truck drivers argued "distribution" is a noun, and thus belongs with the "shipment", as an object of the preposition "for".
For the drivers to be included in the exemption, the writers would have to use "distributing" - a verb - which would make it parallel to the verbs before it ("canning, processing, preserving" etc).
To put an end to this headache and cut to the chase, the truck drivers won, and the company settled for $US5 million ($A6.9 million).
ROGERS COMMUNICATIONS IN $2 MILLION DISPUTE
Back in 2002, two Canadian telecommunications companies were caught up in a huge dispute over a single comma.
Television cable provider Rogers Communication Inc was in a dispute over an agreement with Bell Aliant Regional Communications Income Fund to lease power poles, after Bell terminated the contract before the five-year term was up, the Globe and Mail reported.
The ensuing legal battle was worth $CA1 million ($A1.05 million).
In 2002, Rogers signed a deal with Aliant Inc to access to power poles at a yearly rate of $US9.60 ($A13.20) a pole. Some of the poles were owned by Aliant, and others by another company called New Brunswick Power Corp.
Changes to a separate agreement between Aliant and New Brunswick saw the annual rate jump to $US18.91 ($A26) per pole.
Aliant told Rogers the contract would be terminated as of February 1, 2006 - one year and three months before the contract was due to end.
The argument was over whether it was acceptable for the company to back out on the deal.
Here's what the contract said: "Subject to the termination provisions of this 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."
It was the last part of the phrase - "unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either part" - that proved contentious.
The argument was whether the presence of a comma before the word "unless" meant the closing modifier impacted both clauses preceding it.
If so, Bell Aliant was well within its right to terminate on one year's notice. But Rogers interpreted it as a right to terminate only at the end of a five-year term.
Rogers, meanwhile, argued that the contract ran for five years and would automatically be renewed for another five, unless a telephone company cancelled the agreement before the start of the final 12 months.
The battle was long and complicated. In 2006, the regular declared in favour of Bell Aliant.
But then, Rogers drew on the French version of the contract, which didn't include the same ambiguity - and had equal status under Canadian law.
A year later, the regulator changed its mind, and based on the French contract, Rogers won.