Grammar Tip – Commas — are they important?

Some people don’t see the necessity of commas. However, a telecommunications company has recently had a $2 million lesson on why they are so important.

It seems that, in 2002, a telecommunications company contracted an infrastructure company to string cable lines across the Maritimes for a fee of $9.60 a pole. The telecommunications company believed the deal was for five years, and that it could be potentially renewed for another five years. However, the infrastructure company backed out halfway through the first period, and it was supported by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The sentence that allowed for the cancellation read as follows:

“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.”

Grammarians agree that when you enclose words between two commas, the words are not essential and can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Therefore, the infrastructure company is correct in interpreting the sentence as “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, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

If the comma had been deleted after the word “terms,” the contract could not have been broken.

The telecommunications company is now no longer protected from the rising costs for stringing the cable, and it is estimated the comma problem may cost them over $2 million.

This story, sent to me by a BizWritingTip reader, is a wonderful example of why punctuation is so important. How much care do you take with your commas?

Incidentally, in this example the numbers for the years are written two ways: five (5) years. This is because it is a sentence in a legal contract. In standard business writing, you would never write numbers both ways.

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