The $2 Million Dollar Comma
Hello. It appears, based upon several e-mail messages I have received and a great deal of online research I have conducted, that there are many in our world who do not care for weblogs like mine (nor for the people who write them) because the tone and content of these online journals come across as nitpicky, trivial, or 'holier-than-thou.' I find this attitude sad and unfortunate.
Have you read the June 8, 2006 piece from the Toronto Globe and Mail where a single punctuation error in a corporate contract may cost Canadian cable/wireless provider Rogers Communications in excess of $2 million dollars? Let me tell you a little bit about it.
Although you can obtain the fine detail by clicking the 'Globe and Mail' hyperlink I've provided in the previous paragraph, I can quickly summarize the story by telling you that Rogers had contracted a deal with another Canadian communications company, Bell Aliant Regional Communications, and Aliant suddenly gave notice of termination one day.
Obviously, the top-tier decisionmakers at Rogers were flabbergasted at this unexpected turn of events because according to their contract, Aliant was supposed to be on the hook for at least five years. "Not so fast," said the honchos at Aliant, and they whipped out the contract itself. Here is an excerpt of the relevant text of the Rogers-Aliant contract, borrowed from the Globe and Mail article:
[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."
If you parse the sentence carefully, you'll see that the second comma is the clincher. The way the contract was originally formulated was that Aliant should have been locked into the deal for a period of five years across the board, and then were granted the option of successive five-year terms, so long as they provided Rogers a one-year written prior notice of termination.
But no, ho ho: with that errant second comma in place, the Aliant folks were on solid grammatical ground in parsing the sentence to mean that they could cancel their contract at any time—even during the first year of their agreement—provided that they gave Rogers their advance notice. Slippery!
In conclusion, good grammar matters. To those grammar detractors 'out there' in the tubes, not that you are reading this essay, of course, although my lesser self wants to say 'bite me,' my greater self says with much compassion: please work on overcoming your insecurities, purchase The Elements of Style, read more, and write, write write!
Thanks. I'll be here all week.
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