It was Edward Bulwer-Lytton who said it best: “the pen is mightier than the sword“.
That’s why I love language — letters, words, sentences, and grammar — it’s more than just a career for me; it’s a true passion. And, like a musician that practices as often as possible, I am constantly reading and writing to develop my skill. There is so much power in effective communication!
Yesterday, my wife and I were out with some friends, one of whom had just returned from a workshop about effective writing in the workplace. He referenced a 2006 lawsuit between communication companies Rogers and Aliant based on the placement of a single comma in their agreement.
The agreement in question went like this: “[…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.”
There are three clauses in this sentence (separated by commas) and the issue is whether the final clause “unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party” referred to the first clause or the second. If the final clause referred to the first clause, Aliant could back out of its agreement within one year as long as it gave written notice. If the final clause referred to the second clause, Rogers felt that it had a “locked-in” agreement for the first 5 years.
That reminded me of something I read in the New York Times a couple of months ago. The Times was reporting on a US Supreme Court decision regarding the Second Amendment in the US Constitution. The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Once again, it’s the commas that are causing confusion. The issue at hand is whether or not the amendment is intended to support the importance of maintaining a militia or the importance of citizens to bear arms. Obviously, the second reading is the most common but the article points out that there are several versions of this amendment — with varying comma usage of 2, 3, and 4 commas — and those commas completely change the meaning. Read the full story here.
Exacting grammar is not essential in all cases. Stephen King is a very engaging author and ignores many rules of grammar in a way that is very effective. I believe some business writing such as sales or marketing writing) is another avenue where the rules of language can be bent as necessary to achieve a purpose. But the two stories mentioned above show just how powerful language can be.