“Yes, punctuation really matters.” And, no, that’s not just an argument with my teenager over his homework.
Here are some recent reminders of how much is at stake when it comes to accurate contractual and insurance policy language:
- “Ending a case that electrified punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs, Oakhurst Dairy settled an overtime dispute with its drivers that hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The dairy company in Portland, Me., agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers...”
- The contract of besieged University of Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller, who came under fire for serious recruiting violations, would seem to pay him more for being fired with cause than without.
- A claim for damage to the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association was denied because the policy included a mistakenly transposed address for the bait shop in question, i.e., “1590 Highway 361” when “1950 Highway 361” was the actual address.”
Going back a few more years, we see that a single comma, word or clause can put billions of dollars at risk:
- In the teeth of the 2008 financial crisis, the merger agreement between Bear Stearns and JP Morgan inadvertently included a clause that “required JPMorgan to guarantee Bear Stearns’ liabilities even if shareholders voted down the deal.” JPMorgan CEO James Dimon was reportedly “apoplectic” after learning of the clause...”
- In the insurance industry, too, imprecise language can result in disputes with potential consequences in the billions of dollars: “Who will rebuild lower Manhattan and how quickly could hang on a single word: ‘occurrence’. This is a technical insurance term. At issue is whether the two aeroplanes crashing into the World Trade Centre's twin towers represented one occurrence, insured for $3.5 billion, or two, insured for double that amount.” (A jury later ruled that it was only one occurrence.)
Bottom Line: A reminder to hire good proofreaders and order a copy of Lynne Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!
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