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Aldus Manutius would be so proud. The Italian printer left us more than five centuries ago, but he likely would have loved how a missing comma once helped an Ohio woman get a parking violation reversed.

Manutius used what was given to him and improved it. When he was doing his printing in the 1400s, he used the forward slash (/), also called a "virgule," to indicate that readers should pause in a sentence. Manutius wasn't satisfied with that. He moved the slash lower on the line and curved it a little to look like today's comma. Its forerunner was from Ancient Greece, and sometime in the 1500s, Manutius' newer punctuation received the name "comma," which is Greek for "a piece cut off." The Greek word sounds better than the translation.

Now we'll move to 2015.

Andrea Cammelleri of West Jefferson, Ohio, parked her Ford pickup on the street for more than a day. She received a parking ticket because of a village ordinance that bars "any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle from daylong parking."

Did you catch it? A comma was missing after "motor vehicle." If it were there, the ordinance would have prohibited Cammelleri from parking all day.

She argued that her pickup was not a motor vehicle camper or any of the other things listed.

The village said the comma should be there, and its absence was just a typo.

Cammelleri couldn't let that rest, and she appealed the ticket.

The 12th District Court of Appeals agreed with her and overturned the violation. "If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma," Judge Robert A. Hendrickson wrote.

This isn't the only time punctuation has created a legal challenge. Now, law isn't my specialty, so I'll try to make it through the haze of legal language.

A comma cost a couple of million dollars in a Canadian agreement about a decade ago. Rogers Communication Inc. signed a contract with Aliant, a company that was to string cable lines.

Paperwork said 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."

The Rogers people thought this meant that Aliant couldn't raise costs for the first five years. After that, to do so, Aliant had to give a year's notice.

But Aliant focused on that comma after "successive five year terms." It decided to raise charges after only a couple of years. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, which oversees such matters, agreed with Aliant.

"This is a classic case of where the placement of a comma has great importance," Aliant said.

Apparently, ignorance of punctuation excuses no one.

A comma issue has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, too. Probably more than once. But in a 1988-89 case, United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises Inc., cash once again was at stake in an interpretation of part of the Bankruptcy Code.

It read:

"There shall be allowed to the holder of such claim, interest on such claim, and any reasonable fees, costs, or charges provided for under the agreement under which such claim arose."

The comma after "interest on such claim" suggests that a claimant could receive interest as well as fees and other costs as long as those are reasonable.

The majority of the Supreme Court agreed. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that the interpretation was "mandated by the grammatical structure of the statute."

In the court's dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote, "The Court's reliance on the comma is misplaced." Manutius would have gasped.

An American Bar Association Journal from 1967 reviewed the practices of a few states. I didn't read the journal when it came out because I hadn't yet reached kindergarten, but I found excerpts online recently. From what I could understand, each state leans one of two ways:

■ When a statute can be interpreted two ways, use the punctuation to decide the meaning.

■ Or, punctuation doesn't change what was the clear intent of the statute.

I'm biased toward the first alternative. Punctuation exists to help you figure out the intent of a sentence.

I found a quote from Edgar Allan Poe, American writer of sometimes haunting stories, on the topic: "The writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood for the want of merely a comma."

So will I ever underestimate the power of a comma? Nevermore.

Our friend Manutius, by the way, also invented the semicolon and italics. But that's a story for another day.

Sources: Columbus Dispatch, Washington Post,,, Quinnipiac University, ABA Journal, Google, Cornell University Law School


Style on 05/06/2019

Print Headline: Small but mighty is a comma


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