A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

See, I TOLD you punctuation matters.

This is great.
It could be the most costly piece of punctuation in Canada.

A grammatical blunder may force Rogers Communications Inc. to pay an extra $2.13-million to use utility poles in the Maritimes after the placement of a comma in a contract permitted the deal's cancellation.

The controversial comma sent lawyers and telecommunications regulators scrambling for their English textbooks in a bitter 18-month dispute that serves as an expensive reminder of the importance of punctuation.

Rogers thought it had a five-year deal with Aliant Inc. to string Rogers' cable lines across thousands of utility poles in the Maritimes for an annual fee of $9.60 per pole. But early last year, Rogers was informed that the contract was being cancelled and the rates were going up. Impossible, Rogers thought, since its contract was iron-clad until the spring of 2007 and could potentially be renewed for another five years.

Armed with the rules of grammar and punctuation, Aliant disagreed. The construction of a single sentence in the 14-page contract allowed the entire deal to be scrapped with only one-year's notice, the company argued.

Language buffs take note — Page 7 of the contract states: 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.”

Rogers' intent in 2002 was to lock into a long-term deal of at least five years. But when regulators with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) parsed the wording, they reached another conclusion.

The validity of the contract and the millions of dollars at stake all came down to one point — the second comma in the sentence.

Had it not been there, the right to cancel wouldn't have applied to the first five years of the contract and Rogers would be protected from the higher rates it now faces.

“Based on the rules of punctuation,” the comma in question “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year's written notice,” the regulator said.

Rogers was dumbfounded. The company said it never would have signed a contract to use roughly 91,000 utility poles that could be cancelled on such short notice. Its lawyers tried in vain to argue the intent of the deal trumped the significance of a comma. “This is clearly not what the parties intended,” Rogers said in a letter to the CRTC.

But the CRTC disagreed. And the consequences are significant.

The contract would have shielded Rogers from rate increases that will see its costs jump as high as $28.05 per pole. Instead, the company will likely end up paying about $2.13-million more than expected, based on rough calculations.

Despite the victory, Aliant won't reap the bulk of the proceeds. The poles are mostly owned by Fredericton-based utility NB Power, which contracted out the administration of the business to Aliant at the time the contract was signed.

Neither Rogers nor Aliant could be reached for comment on the ruling. In one of several letters to the CRTC, Aliant called the matter “a basic rule of punctuation,” taking a swipe at Rogers' assertion that the comma could be ignored.

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

I really like that last sentence best of all. Thanks to Scribbling Woman for the link.


At 8/15/06, 11:20 PM, Blogger ms-teacher said...

This is such a good article to show to students when they say something along the lines of, "we'll never use this stuff."

At 8/16/06, 8:09 AM, Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

What a delicious story-- vindication indeed for all of us who are sticklers for impeccable spelling, grammar and punctuation!

At 8/16/06, 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, that is how "Ed" lost his job. But then he got his own TV show.

At 8/16/06, 12:07 PM, Blogger Ms. George said...

Absolutely brilliant! People are still unwilling to believe there is such power in a simple stroke of the pen/keyboard.

At 8/16/06, 1:07 PM, Blogger Dan Edwards said...

And, what is even more delicious, is that expensive attorneys are involved in the creation of this "mess". (does period go after or before ending quotation mark?)

At 8/16/06, 4:44 PM, Blogger Fred said...

I think you should send them an email with your blog address. Maybe they can save a million or two next time.

At 8/16/06, 5:27 PM, Blogger Mister Teacher said...

I wonder if I could find a misplaced comma that would allow me to get out of paying my summer electricity bill...

At 8/16/06, 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted this article on my reading bulletin board and overheard 2 kids talking about it. They were highly amused. Though they did think those involved were "dumbasses."

At 8/16/06, 11:17 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Ha--I've printed the article out and posted it on my "reading" board. I've already had several teachers walk by and comment. It's lovely when our "this is important--listen!" speeches come so splendidly true.

At 8/17/06, 6:45 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Polski, dear, it goes before. Thanks for asking.

And yes, I feel sweet vindication right along with the rest of you. Hee hee hee.

At 8/19/06, 5:15 PM, Blogger Alyssa said...

This has to be the best post I read all summer - I love comma shananagins :) I can't wait to use this with my grade 10s in the fall as an actual example of the consequences of a misplaced comma. (I mean, consequences other then a red circle around the offending comma and my scrawled "comma usage" beside it)

At 8/19/06, 5:16 PM, Blogger Alyssa said...

I just commented using the wrong than. I can't believe I did that. I meant "other THAN", not other then. I've been out of the classroom for too long. (I'm so ashamed.)

At 8/19/06, 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

xnmekbFred-- but you know, since I'm a teacher, that I have NO IDEA about th iportance of money... But man, if I COULD make a buck-- who here is surprised that I ran my own editing and proofreading service in college, and I made a decent amount of dough? Yes, I was a stickler even as a teen.

Redkudu-- but can they properly spell the plural form of "dumbass?" That makes all the difference....

Jennie-- I can't wait to see what my kids say....

Alyssa-- it's okay, darlin'. We are tired. It happens.

At 11/30/08, 3:13 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Ms.Cornelius, were you a 6th grade teacher in Roselle, N.J.?

At 12/18/08, 8:28 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Hee hee-- If I was EVER in Noo Joisey it would be because I was lost. And since I teach geography, I would never admit to that. It would devastate my reputation as a dude.


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