Lynne Truss explained the importance of the punctuation mark that looks like a lonely eyelash best in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
The title of her book was inspired by the story of a panda who walks into a restaurant, orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires twice before walking out. He looks at a confused waiter and says, “I am a panda. That is what we do. Look it up.”
Of course, the waiter who knows the answer is only a Google away does investigate and finds all pandas do eat shoots and leaves. But it is the rare bear that eats, shoots, and leaves a restaurant.
Ah, the under-appreciated importance of our punctuation friend, the comma.
Some writers use far too many. Others don’t use enough.
The latter was the case in an Ohio community. And Judge Robert A. Hendrickson in the 12th District Court of Appeals ruled, with far more impact than even the most self-important editor or elementary school teacher could possess, that commas do count.
The case involved Andrea Cammelleri, a woman who parked her truck on a street in West Jefferson, Ohio, for a day, and by doing so violated the village’s ordinance that prohibited parking any “motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” on a street for more than 24 hours.
Ms. Cammelleri was busted by an efficient township police officer.
Her 1993 Ford truck was not only ticketed, it was towed away and impounded.
But she refused to pay her fine, arguing that she had not parked a trailer, farm implement, non-motorized vehicle or even a “motor vehicle camper” on the street. She had parked a truck.
Ms. Cammelleri pointed out that if the ordinance read “motor vehicle, camper, etc.” she would have gladly paid the fine as part of her civic duty because her truck is certainly a motor vehicle. But it does not come close to being a “motor vehicle camper.”
The trial court judge decided that anyone in his or her right mind would realize when reading the ordinance in context that it unambiguously applied to motor vehicles and “anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma.” Ms. Cammelleri was found guilty of violating West Jefferson Codified Ordinances 351.16(a) and ordered to pay court costs.
But that was only round one.
Ms Cammelleri was not about to let this disrespect to a comma go without a fight, so she took her case to the appellate court level, before Judge Hendrickson.
He agreed the intent of the ordinance was clear with or without a comma.
But, Hendrickson cited the Bible of many editors, the Chicago Manual of Style (16th Ed.2010), and ruled “according to ordinary grammar rules, items in a series are normally separated by commas.”
“In order to interpret the ordinance in the way the village suggests, prohibiting parking either a motor vehicle or a camper upon a street in the village for over 24 hours, a comma must be inserted between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and the word ‘camper.’ However, no such comma exists. According to the rules of grammar, ‘motor vehicle camper’ is one item.”
Here’s the kicker that shows this is more than a case of a cranky judge who likes commas.
He pointed to the case of Karder Mach. Co. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. to show there is such a thing as a “motor vehicle camper,” which Ms. Cammelleri’s Ford pickup certainly is not.
She did her homework, too. Cammelleri testified when she typed “motor vehicle camper” into an Internet search engine, the result was pages of recreational vehicles.
“A motor vehicle camper is a vehicle propelled or drawn by power other than muscular power equipped for camping,” Hendrickson decided.
“In line with this definition, a motor vehicle camper could be a type of motor home equipped for camping that is self-propelled by an engine, a type of trailer equipped for camping that is drawn by a truck or other motor vehicle, or a truck or other motor vehicle equipped for camping by placement of an attachment onto the vehicle itself.”
Judge Hendrickson ruled, “Judgment reversed, Cammelleri’s conviction is vacated, and Cammelleri is hereby discharged.”
Ms. Cammelleri vindicated. West Jefferson Village officials embarrassed.
But they should not feel too bad. It is easy to make a mistake by adding too many commas or leaving a critical comma out.
The West Jefferson Village typo could have been worse.
Imagine the embarrassment of Ottawa County, Mich., officials when they realized the letter “L” was missing from the word “public” on November 2006 absentee election ballots.
It cost $40,000 to reprint 170,000 ballots, the Associated Press reported.
Some of the ballots were mailed out before the changes could be made. If they decided to hold on to them rather than vote, thousands of people in Ottawa County could be in possession of a real political collector’s item.