Its hard to imagine commas in the news, but thats exactly whats been happening. Lets call our first story, The Comma goes to War. In September, President George Bush said on CNN that when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look just like a comma. The Japan Times, editorializing that the president had literally lapsed into a comma, joined the legion of critics of who read into this presidential punctuation mark evidence that Bush was trivializing the human cost of war.
Perhaps, said the president’s more charitable observers, he was simply echoing the popular Christian bromide, “Don’t put a period where god has put a comma.” Commas, after all, mean “more to come,” not “the end.” But the president didn’t say that. And even if he meant it, then the good grammarian is bound to ask on second reading, the comma of Iraq is to be followed by what other war? Iran? Syria? North Korea? Venezuela?
Let’s call the second story “The Case of the $2 Million Comma.” While the American president was off parsing the Middle East, Canadian regulators ruled that a comma in a contract between two communications giants was going to cost one of them more than $2.13 million.
Rogers Communications had entered into an agreement with Aliant Inc. to string cable lines on utility poles in the Maritime Provinces. Here’s what the contract said: “This agreement . . . 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 it is terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
Rogers assumed the contract guaranteed an initial five-year run, followed by optional five-year renewals, but Aliant argued that because of the second comma, the agreement could be terminated at any time, even during those first five years, with one year's notice. They wanted out.
Regulators sided with Aliant. They indicated that they would have agreed with Rogers if the contract had less punctuation: “The agreement shall continue in force for five years, and thereafter for successive five year terms unless terminated.”
Let’s call the third story, “Punctuating Pandas.” Commas have been in the news ever since Lynn Truss published her surprise punctuation best-seller, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. That book takes its title from a joke: a panda walks into a bar, has a snack, and shoots the place up. When challenged, the panda points to the definition of “panda” in a poorly-edited natural history book: "Large black-and-white mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."
Get it? A bit of British humor. Or humour. But Truss is wrong. The panda joke isn’t about punctuation. Many written versions of the joke don’t even have commas: the definition in these versions simply reads, “Eats shoots and leaves.” Such jokes are meant to be spoken. The ambiguity -- the humor -- is in the ear of the beholder, not on the page.
Similarly there’s no law requiring us to interpret the sentences in a contract one way or another simply because of how they're punctuated. That's because punctuation practice varies wildly depending on time, context, and purpose. There's no punctuation constitution, no Rosetta stone telling us what it all means.
But even in terms of general punctuation practice today, while the Canadian Regulatory Commission reading is correct, the deal between Rogers and Aliant would be just as ambiguous with or without the second comma. To ensure the contract running for a full five years, Rogers would have had to rephrase, not just repunctuate.
As for reducing the War in Iraq to a multi-billion dollar comma error, well wars, like contracts and jokes, are more about intentions and interpretations than they are about punctuation. In any case, the president prefers to punctuate his war with a smiley face, not a comma. The Iraq Study Group Report has taken a red pencil to that, replacing it with a frowny face. Neither one is likely to have much impact on the growing number of Iraqis who end their sentences either with George Bush-style commas or more conventional periods, but who signal exclamation points with roadside bombs.