The million-dollar comma!

Rogers Inc., a Canadian communications company, learned the hard way about the importance of punctuation—to the tune of $2.13 million dollars (CDN).

Read the article bellow and examine closely the bold passage. In the quoted text there are two commas. Focus on the second comma and see if you can explain the grammatical error.

(See the EBE explanation below the article.)

The Million Dollar Comma ...

the story of a simple error in the placement of a comma that cost millions.

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Rogers Pays $2.13 Million for a Comma        The Globe and Mail, Canada

For the addition of a comma in a sentence, Rogers paid Aliant 2.13 million dollars.


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.

EXPLANATION: The second comma created a parenthetic construction, which essentially places the phrase “and thereafter for successive five year terms” outside the original sentence. This construction is also known as a ‘non-restrictive’ meaning that the phrase is not as important as the rest of the sentence and could, therefore, be left out. If that section is removed entirely the sentence states that the contract could be for only one year with prior notice. If the second comma is removed so is the parenthetic (non-restrictive construction) and the sentence would then mean that this is a five-year contract with an option to add successive five-year contracts only to be terminated with a one-year notice. The one-year option would never have existed.