Friday, April 12, 2013

The Comma that Opened Airspace?

An interesting March blog about the consequences of a poorly placed comma came to my attention recently and I thought I’d share it. The post, which was by Tony Tharakan, editor of Reuters’ India Online, tells about India’s approval of a controversial proposal by a Malaysian airline (AirAsia) for a new airline to operate in India. The proposed airline will be a joint venture (JV) between AirAsia and India’s Tata group and other Indian investors.

The controversy arose when some wondered whether the proposal complied with a September 2012 government press note outlining the rules for foreign direct investment in aviation in India.  Here’s a portion of the sentence in the September press note with the whose interpretation was open to debate:

“The government of India has reviewed the position in this regard and decided to permit foreign airlines also to invest, in the capital of Indian companies, operating scheduled and non-scheduled air transport services, up to the limit of 49% of their paid-up capital…”

AirAsia will only own 49% of the JV, so the issue wasn’t about the amount of foreign investment. Instead, officials from the aviation authority argued that the policy referred to in the press note allowed foreign airlines to invest in existing carriers, not start new ones up. But, India’s Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) interpreted the sentence to mean that foreign airlines were allowed to take up to a 49% stake in existing Indian carriers and new airlines being set up.

Tharakan commented that the problematic comma in the quoted sentence was the one after the word “companies”. He said: “Had there been no comma after “companies”, things would have been clear. It would have meant foreign airlines could only invest in existing carriers….”

Personally, I think the confusion is attributable to the comma after “invest’ and the comma after “companies”. In any event, I think much of the confusion could have been avoided by application of the plain language principle of using short, clear sentences rather than long, comma-filled passages. What do you think?