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August 09, 2006  |  Editor needed (past tense)  |  916 hit(s)

Wow, here's an expensive comma dispute. Legal issue. The text in question says that an 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.
One party thought they had a solid five-year contract with options to renew. The other party argued that the agreement was good up to five years (with an option to renew), but could be terminated at any time.


Scott Allen   09 Aug 06 - 8:56 PM

How delicate and subtle the English language can be. I'd have to side with Aliant given only the text of the contract, though I suspect this was not the intent.

David   10 Aug 06 - 2:31 PM

I've seen this in a couple of places now. What struck me from the beginning was not that commas are strange and powerful things, but that good technical writing would have saved a big headache. Why rely on each individual's (or arbitrator's) take on the "subtleties" of comma rules? Why not just state the terms unambiguously. On first reading, I saw "comma-and" to signal a new independent clause, but I didn't get one. I had to reread (always a red flag to the technical editor) to conclude that the clause set off by commas must be intended as a parenthetical clause. So: I think the moral here should not be "be careful how you use your commas" but "be careful to spell out what you mean". Why not do something like this:
... shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made. After the initial five-year term, the agreement shall be renewable for additional five-year terms until terminated in writing by either party. Termination of additional terms shall occur no sooner than one year after written notice is provided.

The existing language is indeed kinda comma-faulty: Don't send a comma to do a period's job.

mike   10 Aug 06 - 2:42 PM

>Don't send a comma to do a period's job.

Ha! That's great. Quotes page.

lb   13 Aug 06 - 12:52 AM

Yeh I'm with David on this one. I'd seen this mentioned elsewhere and I thought -- it's not the comma that is unclear, it's the entire sentence. Rewrite!

It reads like a parenthetic set of commas. If they meant it otherwise... they certainly shoulda writ it difrent.

This is very much like the 'dangling-else' dilemma in programming language design. (I like to throw in tangents like that, in the hope that it makes me look clever.)