Comma Chameleon Law

There, is no need for the comma at the beginning of this sentence. It’s very distracting for many readers, for sure. It probably changes the meaning of the sentence, too, although most readers would realize that it is an errant character and best ignored. But sometimes, an extra comma can lead to ambiguity. “Eats shoots and leaves,” as one book notably pointed out, describes a panda bear; “eats, shoots and leaves” tells the story of an assassin who snacks on the job.

And sometimes, the comma — or an omitted but necessary one — has legal implications.

In February of 2014, an Ohio woman named Andrea Cammelleri parked her pickup truck on the street in front of her house. More than a day later, she woke up to find that her truck was gone. She called the police to report it stolen but they informed her that no, it was impounded. Her local town had an ordinance which prohibited anyone from leaving a motor vehicle parked on the street for more than 24 hours and Cammelleri had violated that law.

While most people would have simply paid the parking ticket, Cammelleri went to court. She didn’t contest the fact that her truck had been left parked for more than the allowed time limit, either. Instead, her defense relied on grammar. The text of the ordinance, as quoted by the appellate court, was as follows:

It shall be unlawful for any person [. . .] to park [ . . .] upon any street [ . . . ] in the Village, any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle for a continued period of twenty-four hours.

Note that the ordinance says “motor vehicle camper” — no comma — and not the comma-separated “motor vehicle, camper.” The former case suggests that there’s a specific type of camper which one cannot park on the street; the latter bars campers of all types, and also cars, trucks, motorcycles, and probably Segways too. The first court to hear Cammelleri’s case, though, didn’t care to draw such a distinction. It ruled that “anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma” and, therefore, ruled against Cammelleri. She appealed.

The appellate court decided that Cammelleri was right, and in this case the law is what the words say, and not what the law would have said had the person who put pen to paper remembered to put in that missing comma. (That’s not always true. This type of legal analysis is called “statutory construction” and it can be a lot more nuanced, but this is the case of an unpaid parking ticket.) The court ruled that Cammelleri’s truck shouldn’t have been towed and she shouldn’t be fined. And, if the village didn’t like it, they had a solution: “it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and the word ‘camper.'”

Bonus Fact: In the United Kingdom, a branch of the government called Companies House “incorporates and dissolves limited companies, registers the information companies are legally required to supply and makes that information available to the public.” And in 2009, they made a big, small mistake. A company named Taylor & Son Ltd had gone belly-up, and Companies House needed to record the pending dissolution and notify the public. Unfortunately, Companies House recorded that Taylor & Sons Ltd — a totally different company whose founder had more than one male child — was the company in liquidation. To prevent being left as a creditor of a winding-down company, Taylor & Sons’ suppliers and customers stopped doing business with it, dooming the otherwise healthy and century-old firm. Taylor & Sons went out of business and sued Companies House, arguing that the extra, errant “s” cost them a fortune. The old owners won and were awarded £9 million.

From the Archives: Fruit Loopholes: Another typo with similar results.

Take the Quiz!: You’re given part of a movie title, but it’s cut off at the comma. Complete the rest of the title.

Related: “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss. 4.1 stars on over 900 reviews.