Whoever thought punctuation wasn’t important? One little, seemingly insignificant comma cost a Canadian company more than $2 million. Consider the next two sentences and consider what the difference in meaning is. The question is: how long does the agreement have to last until it is terminated?
- [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.
- [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.
Remember how commas group things together? In the first sentence, which was the one actually used in the Canadian contract that ended up in court, that second comma groups together the words ‘and thereafter for successive five year terms’ and also means that they can be dropped from the sentence without altering the meaning. They represent an example of parenthetical commas. For this sentence, since that group of words can be dropped, the meaning is that the contract lasts for five years unless one year’s notice is given.
But one of the contracting parties wasn’t all that clear on how commas worked. That company thought the sentence had the same meaning as sentence no. 2: that the contract lasted for five years, and then could be terminated with one year’s notice in any following five-year renewal period. They weren’t happy when the company with which they had the agreement wanted to terminate the contract early and were even less happy when a court found they had misunderstood the contract.
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