Why the humble comma matters more than you think

It is puny in size but packs a powerful punch much above its weight!

 |  8-minute read |   08-03-2016
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  • "Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?
  • I climbed to Dharamsala too
  • I did
  • I met the highest lama
  • His accent sounded fine
  • To me, to me,"

the music band Vampire Weekend has sung.

Apparently, they didn’t realise the revolutionary impact of this punctuation mark. The little comma has had a mighty impact on the commercial and social landscape. It has ruined companies, has enriched lawyers, has led to social schisms. Pay attention in your grammar classes; you never know when the worm-looking character turns and bites you for your careless editing.

Consider the following sentence: "Woman without her man is lost."

The meaning of the sentence changes, depending on where you place the comma.

Woman, without her man, is lost.

Woman, without her, man is lost.

Two different propositions - all dependent on the placement of a single comma!

Consider this case that came up before me in the tax department. An American bank claimed that all expenses incurred by it in India were tax deductible and that the limitations on expenses imposed by the Indian tax laws would not apply to it, except head office expenses. The amounts involved were huge.

It relied on a clause in the Indo-US Tax Treaty whose language I have simplified to make it comprehensible - “In the determination of the profits of a foreign bank in India, there shall be allowed as deductions business expenses of the bank, including a reasonable allocation of Head Office expenses, subject to the limitations of the taxation laws of India”.

comma-funny_030816080646.jpg By Peter Arkle for New York Times.

The bank claimed that the limits of the taxation laws only applied to the expenses mentioned in the immediately preceding phrase, namely head office expenses, and not the other business expenses.

But there is a comma, the bank was told and so its interpretation of the clause was erroneous.

In its simplified form, the clause would read as - “In the determination of the profits of a foreign bank in India, there shall be allowed as deductions business expenses of the bank, including………, subject to the limitations of the taxation laws of India”.

Thus, the restriction would apply to all expenses, not merely to the preceding phrase. The placement of the comma made it amply clear that the limitations would cover the entire clause.

The bank argued that the comma be ignored so that the phrase read as – “including …. subject to limitations of the taxation laws of India”. This interpretation was rejected and case was won in the first two appeal stages.

The humble comma, however, came to the rescue of the joint venture between the Tatas and AirAsia. The Foreign Investment Promotion Board's (FIPB) interpretation of the intent behind the placement of a comma in the press note 6 ensured the clearance of the venture despite objections from civil aviation ministry officials that the proposal was not consistent with the foreign direct investment policy which allowed a foreign airline to invest only in an existing carrier and not a greenfield one.

This was the operative part- “decided to permit foreign airlines also to invest, in the capital of Indian companies, operating scheduled and non-scheduled air transport services, up to the limit of 49 per cent of their paid-up capital".

As per FIPB, the strategically placed comma allowed fresh investments in the sector as a whole and not just in existing airlines.

In coming to its decision, FIPB gave weight to the part of the press note that says “in the capital of Indian companies, operating scheduled...” while allowing the investment. Had the comma not been there after the word "companies", the policy would have meant that foreign airlines were permitted to invest only in Indian companies already operating air transport services.

There are umpteen foreign examples where the placement of the comma has had a huge impact.

The dispute between Canada’s largest cable television provider, and a telephone company took place over the phone company’s attempt to cancel a contract governing the cable company’s use of telephone poles. But the argument turned on a single comma in the 14-page contract. The answer was worth one million Canadian dollars.

Citing the “rules of punctuation”, Canada’s telecommunications regulator ruled that the comma allowed the phone company to end its five-year agreement with the cable company at any time with notice.

The dispute was over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of 5 years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive 5 year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The regulator concluded that the second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the five-year term as well as its renewal. Therefore, the regulator found the phone company could escape the contract after one year.

In a case in the US, the issue  arose whether federal courts had jurisdiction over a lawsuit involving an offshore banking transaction. It hinged on the meaning of a comma found in a 1933 statute that Congress attached to an international banking law known as the Edge Act.

It was a comma sandwiched between a list (composed of a mix of nouns or phrases) and a modifier.

The plaintiffs and the defendants disagreed on what part of sentence was modified — the whole list or just the last bit before the comma.

According to the judge, this sort of comma was governed by a simple rule. “When a comma is included, as in the Edge Act provision, the modifier is generally understood to apply to the entire series.”

Similarly, there is the case involving Chrysler and a car buyer just days before Chrysler filed for bankruptcy in April 2009.

Post-bankruptcy, Chrysler agreed it was liable for claims, “including but not limited to cases resolved pre-petition, or in the future, on vehicles manufactured in the five years prior to the Closing.” The buyer’s car was made more than 5 years before the bankruptcy filing.

Close your eyes and take away the comma after “pre-petition”. The sentence – the one that was recognised by the court – would read, “including but not limited to cases resolved pre-petition or in the future, on vehicles manufactured in the 5 years prior to the Closing.”

Chrysler claimed that the wording was clear: It was only liable for damages on cars less than 5 years old, for cases resolved both pre-petition and in the future. “Under normal rules of English grammar, the comma refers to everything that precedes it,” Chrysler argued and the court agreed. The defence lawyer wondered why the Court felt that a comma should somehow overrule the plain meaning of the words.

There are critics galore who dispute this legal interpretation. Judges often use principles of construction as a shortcut for sorting out ambiguities in legal texts. But the rules only work when they’re grounded in how people actually write, they claim. This isn’t grammar; it’s an arbitrary principle, they allege. The English-law principle that punctuation don’t matter in statutes, or perhaps even in constitutions should be resurrected, they hope.

And the list goes on and on. “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”. The D.C. Circuit struck down the District’s gun-ban law, based on the placement of the second comma.

When Alabama reprinted its state code several years ago, an editor added a serial comma to the state’s definition of “gasoline”. This seemingly innocent gesture sparked yet another million-dollar dispute. This was the definition of gasoline- “Gasoline, naphtha, and other liquid motor fuels or any device or substitute therefor commonly used in internal combustion engines…”

The dispute wound up at the Alabama Supreme Court which interpreted it by stating that the section defined “gasoline” in three parts: “[1] gasoline, [2] naphtha and [3] other liquid motor fuels or any device or substitute therefore commonly used in internal combustion engines”.

Coming back to India. The national SC/ST Commission was set up in 1954 which studied and reported that the Meenas of Rajasthan were a rich land-owning community mainly inhabiting the western districts of the state.

The commission had recommended ST status to Bhil Meenas, a community dotting some south-eastern parts of Rajasthan and adjoining areas in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

However, it is reported, that the printed version of the report somehow recommended granting ST status to Bhil, Meenas.

Note the comma between "Bhil, Meenas”. Yes, it is a comma that resulted in the Bhils as well as all the three Meenas being inducted into the ST list.

Article II of the US Constitution says, “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President…”

With a proper grammatical reading, that sentence would stipulate that anyone born after 1787, when the Constitution was adopted, could not be President. Most likely, that is an erroneous comma following “United States.” If that comma were taken out, it would grant an exception only to immigrants at that particular time at the founding of the country. If we were to indulge in mega-nerdiness, then every president born in the 1800s or after has been unconstitutional.

Never underestimate the comma. It is puny in size but packs a powerful punch much above its weight!

Writer

Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia

The writer is a former revenue official.

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