It's not just what you say -- it's how you say it
Though no pithy adage comes to mind to describe how people interpret written communications, a recent Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decision interpreting a section of a written agreement proves that it's not just words that matter -- rules of grammar matter too.
The contract the CRTC had to interpret was between Rogers (a large Canadian telecommunications company) and Aliant Telecom. Here's the portion of the agreement at issue:
"[the 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."
The agreement was entered into on May 31, 2002. On February 1, 2005 Aliant gave Rogers written notice and on February 1, 2006 Aliant terminated the agreement. Unhappy with the prospect of the agreement being terminated, Rogers brought the matter before the CRTC for interpretation of the provision.
Rogers argued that the agreement could not be terminated within the first five years. To make this argument, Rogers had to assert that the last part of the sentence -- the words that come after the second comma ("unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party") -- applies only after the initial five year term.
Given that application of standard rules of grammar pretty clearly dictate a different conclusion (see Aliant's argument below), Rogers had to be a bit more creative. Rogers argued that the plain and ordinary meaning of the words resulted in ambiguity or absurdity and so the CRTC should interpret the contract by looking at the specific intent of the parties (which it argued should be determined by examining the words of the contract together with the circumstances surrounding entering into the contract).
Aliant argued that the second comma closed the clause ("and thereafter for successive five (5) year term") and so the information that followed it ("unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party") qualified all the words preceding the comma-enclosed clause.
In other words, Aliant argued the intent was clear and the grammatical structure reflected the parties' intent. Indeed, to rub it in a bit further, Aliant added that had it been the intention to limit the right to terminate the contract only after the end of the initial five years there would have been no comma placed before the word "unless".
The CRTC found in favour of Aliant. The Commission concluded that the wording is clear and unambiguous and that "... based on the rules of punctuation, the comma placed before the phrase "unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party" means that that phrase qualifies both the phrases ...". So, the contract could be terminated at any time by either party so long as the party wanting to terminate gives written notice one year in advance.
Clearly the CRTC's interpretation is correct. The easiest way of thinking about it is that setting off a clause in two commas is like putting parentheses around the clause, which means the information is parenthetical. Parenthetical information is additional information that is not necessary to understanding the rest of the sentence.
If you wonder whether to set off a clause in two commas, read the sentence to yourself omitting the information that you are considering setting off in commas. If the meaning of the sentence is correct (in this case, correct means "what the parties intend") without the parenthetical information -- then use two commas. If omitting the clause changes the meaning, don't use two commas and consider recasting the sentence (or perhaps splitting it into two sentences) to reflect what you mean.
In contract interpretation cases, parties often argue for the "plain and ordinary meaning" of the contract. The CRTC's decision is a welcome one for someone in my business because it makes the point that the plain and ordinary meaning is derived not just from the meaning of the words, but also from the grammar used to express the intent.
If you're interested in reading the actual CRTC decision you can find it at: http://www.crtc.gc.ca/archive/ENG/Decisions/2006/dt2006-45.htm