It began as an arcane legal dispute between two Canadian companies, but a fight between Rogers Communications Inc. and Aliant Inc. over the placement of a comma in a multimillion-dollar contract has ignited an international debate over the importance of language.
After a long period of deliberation, Canada's telecom regulator is expected to rule on the case in the next few months. When it does, an array of business experts, law schools and language specialists from around the world will be watching the outcome closely.
The comma quarrel -- which threatens to cost Rogers at least $1-million because of a simple grammatical issue in the contract -- has been called an English teacher's delight, reinforcing the value of basic punctuation and grammar in the business and legal worlds.
Dozens of universities have flagged the case as a cautionary tale for business and law students, while language specialists from across Europe and North America are now weighing in with arguments and advice in the dispute.
"The phone has been ringing quite a lot. We've had tons of people calling us who want to argue the case for us," said Daniel Campbell, a lawyer for Aliant.
The dispute, which surfaced this summer, stems from a contract Rogers signed in 2002 to string cable lines across telephone poles in the Maritimes. Rogers thought it had an unbreakable, five-year deal with Aliant, which administered the poles.
But a few years into the arrangement, Aliant informed Rogers the contract was being cancelled, and its rates for the use of the poles were being increased by a sum that would turn out to be worth more than $1-million.
At the heart of the issue was a single sentence in the contract, which read: "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."
That sentence has since been e-mailed around the world as academics, legal experts, newspapers, radio commentators and students argue over the true intent of the words. Aliant argues the second comma allows it to scrap the 14-page contract, since the termination applied to both the first five years and the subsequent five-year periods.
After parsing the words -- and calling upon grammar specialists of its own -- the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) agreed with Aliant. Rogers was incensed, insisting that neither company signed the contract with the intent of cancelling in the first five years.
Rogers has subsequently marshalled its own experts, including New York contract lawyer and legal syntax guru Kenneth Adams, who produced a hefty, 69-page affidavit. Rogers has also dug up a French version of the contract, where the sentences are structured differently, to argue its case.
The CRTC must now determine whether one of Canada's official languages should take precedence over the other in such a dispute. One insider at the CRTC said the case is by far one of the most unusual disagreements the commission has dealt with in decades.
While the comma battle may seem farcical or absurd, academics say it is no laughing matter.
When McGill law professor Richard Janda was invited on public radio in the U.S. recently to discuss the case, he said the comma dispute should be heeded beyond Canada's borders. "I've been warning students [in Canada]with it," Mr. Janda told NPR. "So I'm happy to have that warning sent across the border."
University of Toronto law professor Peter Ruby added the case to his curriculum in September then returned to the subject for a lecture in October when Rogers raised the language debate in its appeal of the first CRTC ruling.
Speaking to a conference of energy companies in the U.S. recently, Mr. Ruby asked a room full of executives to voice their opinion on the sentence. The results indicated how divisive the comma debate has become: "I had the audience vote . . . Half voted one way, and half voted the other way," Mr. Ruby said.
Should Rogers lose its appeal to the CRTC, the telecomma -- as it's been dubbed in Canadian legal circles -- will be going to court. Consumers have questioned whether Rogers' customers could be left footing the million-dollar bill if the company is unsuccessful. But Rogers lawyer Ken Englehart said the money would be added to the company's operating costs. "Essentially, we would have to eat this money," Mr. Englehart said.
The million-dollar comma: A language expert weighs in
Lynne Truss, best-selling author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, looked at the disputed sentence and offered her views. The book has sold more than three million copies worldwide since 2003 and is one of several publications that have been cited as evidence in the case, though Ms. Truss is not providing advice on behalf of either company.
The disputed 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."
How Rogers reads it: The contract is good for five years and is automatically renewed for successive five-year terms. The deal can't be terminated within the first five-year term.
How Aliant reads it: The contract can be cancelled at any time provided one-year notice is given.
How Ms. Truss interprets it:
Q: What do you think of the sentence in question? How do you interpret it?
Ms. Truss: I think Aliant is within its rights. As I read it, the presence of the second comma does clearly mean that the conditions of cancelling the contract apply to the initial five-year term. If only the drafters of legal documents would employ the semi-colon, there would be less room for ambiguity. It could have read thus:
"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; thereafter it shall continue for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party."
Which is perfectly clear.
Q: Rogers has gathered its own language experts to argue its side and is not giving any ground to Aliant. What do you think this issue says about the state of language in business and legal affairs?
Ms. Truss: In general, legal minds are encouraged to distrust punctuation -- especially the comma. Many legal documents don't use anything except periods. This seems a bit daft to me. Punctuation was developed as a system to help readers mainly with the groupings of words. I say in Eats, Shoots & Leaves that the comma is like a sheepdog racing about on the hillside of the written word, herding some words together, keeping other words apart. Legal and business documents require clarity above all and punctuation is the main means of achieving this.