The tiniest of things in this world can have such a tremendous impact on our lives, impacts that we are blissfully unaware of or take for granted. We depend on car manufacturers to properly measure engine parts, so that pieces fit as they should, too tight and the engine blows up, too loose and it doesn't work. Surgeons have to be precise within millimeters on some surgeries or the patient can die. Football announcers constantly remind us that the game is a game of inches, they are right of course, and so is life.
The placement of letters, punctuation points, verbs, adverbs, and nouns gives the sentence meaning. An improper usage of one can change the meaning of the sentence or even make it incomprehensible. (The most obvious example are instructions for assembling something that have been translated from Chinese to English. Sure, you get what it is telling you to do, but you have to do some mental gymnastics to make the instructions comprehensible.)
This all leads to our forgotten friend, the comma. It is often misused, and even underused, but in one particular bankruptcy case a misplaced comma could mean the difference between recovering $124,894.02 in legal fees or not.
The case revolves around the terms of a lemon law case settlement between Chrysler and a California resident Bradley Wolff, just before Chrysler filed for bankruptcy. Wolff's attorney claims that post-bankruptcy, Chrysler agreed that it was liable for lemon law claims, "including but not limited to cases resolved pre-petition, or in the future, on vehicles manufactured by the Debtors in the five years prior to the Closing."
The part that is causing all the problems is: "cases resolved pre-petition, or in the future." The official court documents do not contain that comma and according to the rules of English, without it there the meaning has changed. Attorneys for Chrysler are arguing that Chrysler is only liable for lemon law damages on cars less than five years old, for cases resolved both pre-petition and in the future.
“Under normal rules of English grammar [the comma] refers to everything that precedes it,” council for Chrysler said in court.
The Attorneys for Wolff claim that this is "sleight of hand" which absolves Chrysler from paying claims settled before bankruptcy.
This all leads to the comma getting its day in court, as a judge tries to determine if it should have been there all along.
(I am confident that thousands of English teachers across the country have printed this story out to show their students the importance of grammar and punctuation. You cant blame them, as this is likely the only punctuation related newsworthy item for the next 10 years.)