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opinion

Jacqueline Murray is professor emerita of history at the University of Guelph.

Pity the humble comma no more. This most ignored, misused and abused of punctuation marks is now in the headlines and has the power to make or break political fortunes, all thanks to former U.S. vice-president Mike Pence. One errant comma in his 2022 memoir, So Help Me God, might affect the fate of Donald Trump and the Jan. 6 hearings, sending the comma’s prestige sky-high.

In his book, Mr. Pence writes that on Christmas Day in 2020, he told Mr. Trump: “You know, I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome” of the 2020 U.S. election. But now, ABC News reports that, under the scrutiny of special counsel Jack Smith in his investigation into election interference, Mr. Pence has denied there ever was a comma in the sentence.

Why is this comma so important? Because without that comma, a statement of fact is transformed into an admonition. “You know I don’t think I have the authority to change the outcome,” sans comma, would imply that Mr. Trump knew he was asking Mr. Pence to overturn the 2020 election. “You know [comma]” reads more like the floating of an idea – of trying to get a feel for the other person’s level of knowledge of the matter at hand.

That comma, now the punctuation point of contention, could ultimately influence the Department of Justice’s findings in determining what legal action might be taken in the wake of Jan. 6.

The question remains, was there or wasn’t there a comma? If Mr. Pence didn’t write it, how did it get in the book? Perhaps a helpful editor or ghostwriter inserted it. This implies that Mr. Pence himself did not read and sign off on the final version that went to the printers. Or perhaps, like many people, he simply didn’t understand the implications of the comma. Another, even more perplexing possibility is that an electronic writing program added it in, and Mr. Pence trusted an AI grammar watchdog.

While almost any of these suggestions are possible, they all demonstrate that comma usage is not well understood today, not even by AI writing aids.

The comma is quite a newcomer to the world of writing, given that the Roman alphabet, now used by modern English, developed about 3,000 years ago. The earliest texts were written letter by letter without punctuation or spaces between words, no doubt causing great confusion and misunderstanding. In antiquity and much of the Middle Ages, texts were written to be memorized and spoken or read aloud. The speaker decided when to pause for breath or for emphasis. Gradually, pauses were indicated by up to three vertical dots after a word, much like the colon (:) with an additional dot. The dot in the middle of the line indicated the shortest possible length of the pause; two or three dots indicated that extra length should be added to pauses. From the 13th to 17th centuries, in handwritten texts, the comma appeared as a slash (/). Commas, as we know them, were only introduced in the 15th century with the advent of printing.

Printing allowed for the production of multiple identical copies of the same book. This resulted in the standardization of spelling and grammar, and the shape of the comma and its placement were regularized. The introduction of these grammatical conventions gave authors more control over how readers understood their texts. Grammar rules governed how and when to use a comma, and it was the writer, not the reader, who decided where to put them.

The comma is intended to avoid ambiguity of meaning, to divide sentences into smaller segments, and to facilitate a more precise understanding of what is written. The comma can link words in a series. Generally, the words before the comma are more loosely linked to the words that follow it. This is why it matters if there was a comma in Mr. Pence’s statement: Was “You know” separated from the main point, or was it emphasizing it?

In the 20th century, experimental writers such as James Joyce deliberately broke grammatical rules. In his novel Ulysses, Joyce used unpunctuated text, sometimes running as long as 40 pages. When his messy, handwritten notes were transcribed, however, hundreds of unintended commas were added. Finally, in the 1980s, at a huge expense, these commas were painstakingly removed, restoring Joyce’s original meaning.

The absence of a comma can have huge ramifications. In the U.S. Tariff Act of 1872, a misplaced comma led to fruit being included in a tax exemption for imported vegetables. Before the legislation was changed to reflect the original intention, the U.S. government lost US$2-million, the equivalent of US$40-million today.

Not only words, but the meaning of statistics and mathematical formulas can also be altered by a misplaced comma. In 1999, in the formula to adjust for inflation in a contract to sell military transport aircraft, a misplaced comma caused Lockheed Martin to suffer a devastating financial loss. The buyer insisted that the terms of the contract as written be honoured. Lockheed lost more than US$70-million.

A contract dispute between Rogers and Bell resulted in a uniquely Canadian case of comma confusion. In 2006, when the two companies were unable to agree on whether or not a comma had been added in error, they turned to the French version of the contract to decide the matter, concluding that the comma was indeed a typo.

There are a number of factors behind the current epidemic of misplaced commas (just read a high-school or university essay if in doubt). It is easy to blame the disappearance of formal grammar instruction in schools, but the sparse writing style of texts and tweets may be a bigger culprit. Punctuation marks are not even on the main keyboards of smartphones. Commas are now a nuisance and impede speedy communication.

The loss of commas could prove perilous for individuals and society. Commas negate ambiguity and help us say what we mean. This is something Mr. Pence is learning. Was there or wasn’t there a comma? He may say one thing now, but the comma said something quite different.

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