What Broadway’s Hamilton Teaches about Legal Interpretation
Comma placement matters. Broadway musical Hamilton’s Angelica Schuyler sings in “Take a Break”:
In a letter I received from you two weeks ago
I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase
It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?
One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days
Hamilton wrote “My dearest, Angelica.” He calls Angelica his “dearest,” a noun expressing extreme affection. If Hamilton had omitted the comma, “dearest” would be an adjective. The phrase in a letter to his sister-in-law would be more formal, like the “Dear Sir” opening of a business letter.
Contracts and Statutes
Many lawyers spend their careers parsing contracts and statutes, searching for punctuation subtleties to justify favorable client outcomes. One such language dispute came before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in 2006. The contract provided:
“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.”
Could notice to terminate be sent any time to be effective in one year? Or could termination occur only after a five year term? The issue hinged on comma placement. The CRTC ruled:
“Based on the rules of punctuation,” the sentence “allows for the termination of the [contract] at any time, without cause, upon one-year’s written notice.”
Wow! How many opinions have you seen “based on the rules of punctuation”? The cost to the losing party exceeded $2 million Canadian.
Similarly, in the 1870s the U.S. government lost more than $1 million in revenue because a statute defined duty-free items to include: “Fruit, plants tropical and semitropical.” The comma placement was a mistake. It was supposed to read: “Fruit plants, tropical and semitropical.”
Comma Placement Is No Joke — Well, It Could Be
A grammar joke (yes, there are such things) making its way around the internet compares the sentence “Let’s eat, Grandma!” with the cannibalistic “Let’s eat Grandma!”
Your legal writing is no joke. Make sure you get the commas right.
Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers compensation cases throughout California. She is also available for legal freelance writing assignments. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and the author of four books published by the American Bar Association, including "Women Rainmakers' Best Marketing Tips, 3rd Edition." Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at WCMediator.com and on Twitter @WCMediator.
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