Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

A Rip-Snortin’ Knock-Down-Drag-Out Million Dollar Comma Fight


Objects do not have to be large to be expensive.  Paul Ogden just alerted me to an article in the NY Times on a contractual dispute that centers around a single comma that is worth a million dollars (Canadian).

The dispute is over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and 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 terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The second comma has the effect of cutting the final condition (“unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party”) off from the definition of the extension period.  If it is not directly related only to the extension period, then it must equally apply to the basic and extension periods.

The issue was brought before Canada’s telecommunication regulators by Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, when Atlantic Canada attempted to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles after the first year in which the contract was in force.  The regulators concluded that the meaning of the sentence is clear and Atlantic Canada need not wait until the extension period to terminate the contract.

I tend to agree but the point is fine enough that someone should make an attempt to discover the intent of the those who negotiated the contract. However, it does make you wonder why companies pay lawyers $350 an hour for a job that a good English teacher would be happy to do for no more than, well, let’s say, $250 an hour.

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