I recently came across Chris Stokel-Walker’s 23 July 2018 BBC.com piece, “The Commas That Cost Companies Millions.” In the piece, Stokel-Walker details several legal cases where the presence and placement of commas matters, whether to the tune of millions of dollars (as in the Oakhurst Dairy case), in a Texas Supreme Court insurance case, an old tariff law, or a vendor contract, or in a capital case, as in 1916. Stokel-Walker along the way also reports on the need for linguistic ambiguity in some diplomatic contexts, and the article closes with a commendation to review documents carefully and hash out their meaning–adjusting the affecting punctuation–before agreeing to them.
As someone who remains involved in teaching writing, and doing so in accord with particular style guides (which have stated opinions about comma use), I am engaged in issues Stokel-Walker addresses in the article. Indeed, as was true of the Oakhurst Dairy case before, Stokel-Walker’s piece is a boon for those in my position. No few students have, in my experience, bemoaned attention to small details such as comma use (and commas are frequently an issue demanding attention in their writing); having a piece ready to hand that notes ways in which different punctuation results in different meanings–some of them quite costly–helps to make the real-world connections that are not always evident to those enrolled in required writing classes. And even if the use of particular style manuals can be problematic–as I acknowledge they can well be–they do speak to audience expectations, which must be addressed in any writing that would succeed at reaching any particular group of people.
That younger students I’ve taught, both at the secondary and undergraduate levels, would balk at having to pay such detailed attention is not a surprise. Being young, they tend to act as youths, and youth is not much associated with patience. Too, being young, they are newer to having to do anything, including to attend to details; they will necessarily be less practiced at it, and will therefore likely do less well at it–and I know of few who enjoy having it pointed out to them that they do not do a thing well. (They may appreciate knowing where they need to improve, but that is not the same thing as enjoying it, to be sure.) But I am surprised that the same attitude prevails among the older students I currently teach–people who, having been in the workforce and, in many cases, the military, are acquainted with the idea that small details matter. And I am surprised that those enrolled in the business- and technology-heavy programs offered where I continue to teach balk at such things, given the damage done by a misplaced decimal point on an accounting spreadsheet or by a single mis-typed character in a long string of code.
I suppose the matter is one of looking at standardized spelling and punctuation–whatever standard is applied–reads as a matter of being persnickety, as one that doesn’t affect anything “real.” Some of that, I’m sure, is an attitude held over from bad earlier teaching (not that I necessarily teach well; I’ve read the comments students have written of me, and they are not always compliments). That is, part comes from an issue I address in another essay, and part comes from teachers using “grammar” as a “gotcha” mechanism. Some, too, is the same unfamiliarity present among younger students; those I teach now have generally been away from formal schooling for a while, and the lack of exposure is not always helpful. But whatever the reason, I think it will be helpful to add Stokel-Walker’s recent piece to my teaching materials; while the details can differ, they do matter, and students–indeed, all of us–benefit from attending to them.