tony mcmanus

On writing, writers, books and publishing.

73 years ago today, iL Duce, Benito Mussolini, Italian dictator, met his fate and was executed by Italian partisans. And along with other fascists, his body hung by his feet on a meat-hook over an Esso garage forecourt and desecrated by a violent mob. Hardly the end he expected.
He took his country into a war she did not want. He paid a terrible price.
Was it deserved? Did it serve a purpose? I’d say no.
Fascism is still purveyed. Dictators still strut across the world as if they own it. Far better, and more civilized, if he’d had his day in court.
Nevertheless, dictators and would be dictators should remember this day and the fate of Benito Mussolini and ask themselves: Is it worth it? I think not.

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ALLTHATSINTERESTING.COM
First, they threw vegetables at his corpse. Then they started beating and kicking it. Then things got worse.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A THAI BANKER AND A VILLAGE SYLOCK LOAN SHARK?
THE LOAN SHARK SMILES WHEN HE FUCKS YOU.
THE BANKER DON’T.

On my first visits to Thailand, I was enraptured. I thought I’d found paradise on earth. A democratic country with a constitutional monarchy and land of happy, contented, smiling people at peace with itself. Among the things I admired was the sense of economic vitality. When I looked at all the expensive trucks and cars that pack Thailand’s roads, I came to feel that Thailand was an affluent society with a healthy, booming economy.
But then I woke up and saw a country that was a military dictatorship like no other on earth, with brutal draconian laws and society so unequal that 1% own more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth, where trade unions are outlawed and wage levels low.
So, I pondered, how do Thais get to own these Toyota SUVs, and Landcruisers, Honda Civics, and Preludes and Mazdas, not to mention the Mercs, Beamers, and Volvos, etc?
The answer is, they don’t. The banks and other financial institutions own them.
So, after a little checking, I found that household and personal debt is very high in Thailand, closing with 70% and increasing. Most of this in credit-card use (abuse?) and automotive loans. Add on store-card use and you see a different picture. Like the rest of the world, Thais are in debt; massively so.

Many years ago, in a happier time of fiscal sobriety, there were only a handful of credit cards. Top of the heap was American Express; ‘Don’t leave home without it.’ Remember that slogan? There was Diner’s Club, Carte Blanche, and a few others. They were a privilege to have and not easy to get. I recall applying for an American Express card and being turned down.
And in those days, you had to pay off your balance before the end of each month or lose your privileges. Most people used cash or wrote checks. It was difficult to get into debt. Nations balanced their books. And so did the citizens.
Then the banks, driven by greed, got into the act.
They introduced the ‘Bankcard’; Visa and Mastercard leading the charge. One feature of these new cards was, you didn’t have to pay the bill before the month’s end. “Just make a small payment and roll the debt over into the next month. No problem.” But the best part was, they were easy to get. And it got easier.
Today, the banks hand them out like confetti at a Greek wedding.
Then the big department stores and supermarkets came up with their ‘store cards.’ People short of cash began buying groceries on credit. Fiscal sobriety, a boring restraint, was cast aside. Let the party commence, and the good times roll.
And the siren call was, “It only costs $$$ a month. You can easily afford it.” Yeah, right.

Not long ago, in Canada where I come from, household debt reeled out of control and personal bankruptcy reached record proportions, forcing the Federal Government to tighten the bankruptcy laws. It was crazy. One Friday night I was enjoying a few drinks with friends in a Montreal bar when a bunch of around eight girls entered. They all handed the barmen their credit cards and began drinking. No cash changed hands. At the end of the night, they would sign their receipts and stagger home, a lot poorer. And deeper in debt.

Back to Thailand.
I know a Thai lady, an educated lady, so ensnared in debt she will never escape. The banks take 90% of her salary, leaving her and her small family in dire straights. She will die in debt.
The bank’s high-interest rates, compounding, ensure this. The banks want her and other Thais in debt. They like it when she defaults and misses paying on time. That way they get to bleed her for life. She’s not alone. She was foolish; the banks are pitiless.
Interest rates in excess of 8% are usurious and immoral in my view. But, hey; when did banks give a shit about morality? I call such interest rates, “vig”. Vig is short for ‘vigorish’, a Yiddish word. It means the interest one pays on a loan sharks loan.
You read of it in crime novels, and hear it said in Mafia movies:
“What’s the vig on this loan, Mario?”
“Fucking high, baby.”
Always remember, when you deposit money in your bank account, you are making the bank a loan. That is what you are doing. It’s the only case where the borrower decides the rate of interest, usually a pitiful 1% – 1.5%.
But you make a loan from the bank and you face the vig. In the case of credit card loans, over 18%. And the Thai bank’s vig has placed the Thai people in a huge web of debt. Endlessly paying the vig, tossing their wages into the big banking piss-pot till they die.

With no trade unions allowed, Thai wage levels are low. Consumer demand, so essential for economic activity, is not there. Thais are forced into debt. To spend they must borrow.
So when you see conspicuous consumption in Thailand and think it represents a healthy economy, think again. Think of that big bank piss-pot. And the vig. I see a big recession ahead. The future is bleak.

Res ipsa loquitur.
Res ipsa loquitur

So, what happened to the villains then, those exciting bad guys who featured so prominently in crime and adventure fiction over the years? To my disappointment, most of the thrillers I’ve read recently have been sadly lacking in decent bad guys. I wonder why the paucity?
   For me, as a reader and writer, the villain of the piece is every bit as significant and essential to the success of the narrative as the protagonist; sometimes more so. After all, it’s the cut, thrust, and parry between the hero and the villain that creates the conflict and mayhem that is at the heart of the drama. A hero is a hero, but it’s more often the quality of the villain that transforms a good thriller into a great one.
   By way of example, we can do no better than observe the way the great master, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, fashioned the many antagonists that challenged Sherlock Holmes. The magisterial Professor Moriarty is, of course, well known. But my personal favorite was the pitiless blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton; a more complete villain never existed. Holmes held Moriarty in some respect, but he loathed the slippery Milverton.
   I find that some writers take the easy route. They make their villains as evil, vicious and hateful as possible; like the sick, antisocial psychopath I had the great displeasure of meeting in a recent novel set in Bangkok, Thailand. This serial killer kidnaps young girls, does awful things to them in a secret chamber and then kills and burns them. He is, of course, trapped, caught and brought to a form of justice. The writer no doubt assumed it’s easier and far less controversial to make his baddie truly loathsome, possessed of a satanic kind of evil that is easy to hate. But having such a pathetic, repulsive creature without a single redeeming feature as your villain is not, I contend, a good idea.
   I have no time for “bad” villains. I have no desire to read stories of pedophiles, mindless psychopathic serial killers, mass murderers and abusers of young women, being hunted down by self-righteous cops and PIs. Such sad, sick people do exist I know, but a writer who uses them as the foil for his protagonist is on a lee shore in my view.
   Villainy should have a purpose. Villains should be at least fascinating; attractive even. Good looks coupled with a bizarre sense of humor can do wonders. Rather like Phillip Vandamm, the character played by James Mason in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, ‘North by Northwest. And a villain who can win female hearts and minds is armed with special weapons.
   Though his books are not popular nowadays, set as they were in the time of the Cold War, I always enjoyed the villains of Ian Fleming. Fleming revealed a keen awareness of the villain’s importance. He abandoned credibility and tended to create villains a little larger than life. He also gave them slightly cartoonish qualities that made them even more memorable and entertaining.
   Beginning with the cold, reptilian Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale, and ending with Francisco Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, we were entertained by a superb cast of outrageous bad boys. Sir Hugo Drax, the suave missile building card cheat in Moonraker. The mad, Auric Goldfinger, who was so obsessed with the stuff that dreams are made of. The dreadful Dr. No on his island, Crab Key. Emilio Largo, the swaggering nuclear bomb thief in Thunderball. And that splendid black villain, Buonaparte Ignace Gallia: “Mr. Big” in Live and Let Die.
   In From Russia With Love, Fleming had Bond contend with three determined enemies bent on his destruction; Red Grant, the psychopath assassin; Kronsteen the SMERSH master planner, and the ghastly Rosa Klebb, who showed us that not all Bond girls are beauties.
   And one should not forget Bond’s #1 adversary, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the SPECTRE chief, who features in three of Bond’s adventures.
   Fleming also seems to have taken delight in terminating his villains’ existence with “extreme prejudice.” Le Chiffre, who, in a towering fit of frustration, is on the point of emasculating Bond when he gets a SMERSH bullet in the brain. Mr. Big was taken down and eaten alive by a pack of sharks and barracudas. Red Grant, on the losing end of a long knife fight with Bond aboard the Orient Express, bleeds to death on the carriage floor. But the best death was reserved for Dr. No, the tall, skeletal creature with pincers for hands. He was buried alive under several tons of guano (bird shit) dropped on him by Bond, a well-deserved death that added greatly to this reader’s pleasure. And Blofeld got his when Bond strangled him in Japan.
   Elmore Leonard was perhaps my favorite crime and suspense writer. I’ve read most of his books. First I read his crime fiction set in Detroit and Miami and then I backtracked to read his early work with westerns.  I also re-read him often; he’s that good. As readers we enjoy him; as writers, we can learn much from him.
   Leonard produced a regiment of villains far too numerous to mention. And all of his bad boys, both big and small were credible; many amusingly so. But the villain who stands out for me is Mr. Tanner; the hard-bitten cold fish rancher who featured in the western novel, Valdez is Coming.
   I confess I love villains. It’s a love affair that began as a child with Long John Silver, the peg-legged pirate from R.L. Stevenson’s, Treasure Island. Rebels, bandits, gangsters, train robbers, scoundrels, conmen and scallywags fascinate me. And not just in fiction. I remember as a boy in Manchester in 1963 waking one morning to hear that the Glasgow – London mail train had been stopped and robbed in what became The Great Train Robbery, and how excited I was.
   I confess to admiring John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and many others. Top of my list was, is and always will be, Salvatore Giuliano, the great Sicilian bandit. And the list continues to grow.
   In fiction, I like subtle, complex villains, bad guys I can relate to and even sympathize with. Such a villain was that stylish rogue from my boyhood reading, Raffles.
   Raffles is a mannered, articulate, gregarious and charming English gentleman with superb credentials. He’s a well-attired bachelor, a cricketer for England with many friends, memberships to fine clubs and rooms in exclusive Albany. But he has a dark side. Secretly, after nightfall, he’s a cat-burglar and safe cracksman, raiding the homes of the rich and famous for their valuables.
   Mario Puzo’s Godfather, Don Corleone, is an exceptional example.  The Godfather was a tour de force. In making a villain his protagonist, Puzo delivered a literary coup, albeit risky. Though an organized criminal, a Mafiosa chieftain to be sure, the Don was no thug. And he meted out the kind of justice we all seek in our hearts, but never seem to find in the “system.” Who can forget the moving drama of the pathetic little undertaker, let down by the police and courts, making his tearful pitch to the Don, seeking justice for his raped and beaten daughter? And the beautiful way the Don handled it; spirit moving to say the least. Don Corleone had credibility in spades.
   Another complex villain/hero of mine was Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s creation. She wrote a series of books featuring Tom, who combined the roles of both protagonist and villain. A villain he certainly was in murdering his friend Dickie Greenleaf and assuming his identity; a killing that kicks off his career, but he comes to regret. But yet, as we follow his criminal exploits, we like him.
   A more recent villain I enjoyed was John Dolan’s Jim Fosse, who features in Dolan’s, Time Blood and Karma series of books. Fascinating and lethal as a cobra, Fosse is a smooth, urbane, charming conman; a shamelessly self-centered rogue.
   I believe there are two main types of villains: the credible and the incredible; I like both, but with a strong preference for the former. There are also other categories; accidental villains and reluctant villains are possible areas worthy of a writer’s consideration.
   Some time ago I wrote my first novel: The Iran Deception. In doing so I fashioned several villains. But my main villain I was determined to make attractive, especially to women. Shai Katsav is in so many ways a reluctant villain, a victim of circumstance. He’s also a handsome, dissipated rogue who given half a chance would charm the pants off a nun.
   I want to see more female villains in crime literature. Men tend to be crude and use muscle to get their way. Women use craft, feminine wiles, and sex to manipulate men and overcome obstacles and adversaries. A strong, believable woman, operating in what is a man’s world has always had powerful potential for crime writers; especially if she’s beautiful. Brigid O’Shaughnessy of The Maltese Falcon, Phyllis Diertrichsons of Double Indemnity and Cora Papadakis of The Postman Always Rings Twice immediately spring to mind. But my favorite femme-fatale villain was not from a book, but a film; Matty Tyler in Body Heat played to perfection by Kathleen Turner. Matty was surely a villain to be reckoned with. We need more like Matty in crime fiction.
   There’s one thing I’m sure of. No matter if the work is plot driven or character driven, writers do well who take time and care in their crafting of villains. Ideally, the villain and the hero should complement each other.
   As David Lubar put it: The villain, “may be driven by greed, neuroses, or the conviction that his cause is just, but he’s also driven by something, not unlike the things that drive the hero.” A shrewd observation.
   For me, villains don’t do different things. They do things differently.
   So, hats off to splendid rogues.
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I have mixed emotions regarding Amazon. On the one hand, and I guess like most indie authors, I am grateful for the opportunity Amazon has given me to become a self-published independent author of thrillers. On the other hand, they do things that puzzle, baffle and annoy me.

Writing a book, a novel, fashioning a work of fiction, and doing it well, is not easy. Even for ‘natural’ writers, highly gifted and driven writers pursuing destiny, it’s hard work. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable. A writer on a roll, writing well, enjoys a ‘high’ like nothing else on earth. Like a ride to the moon, it can be the most satisfying thing he’s ever done. He gets to feel good about things. But then, after completion, he has to sell his book. This is the hardest part.

In order to sell their books, indie writers Need to build ‘platforms’ in the form of websites, blogs, and newsletters; all time-consuming chores. It helps to be something of a huckster, a showman. Being shy and reclusive is a drawback. But more than anything else they need reviews. Reader’s reviews are essential, the lifeblood of the enterprise. Good reviews drive sales. Without reviews, a book lies ignored, beached in the shallows. The problem is, reviews are not easy to come by. Only a small percentage of readers are prepared to write them. So, writers are faced with the task of cajoling readers into making the effort. At the end of my latest novel, in the hope of a response, I left a little note:

Note to the reader

I hope you enjoyed A Bangkok Interlude. If it’s no trouble, a short, honest review would be greatly appreciated.

 

Getting reviews can be really tough; it’s a hard road to tread. And now, thanks to Big Brother Amazon, it just got a lot harder.

An Australian lady recently purchased and downloaded a copy of my novel, A Bangkok Interlude. She thought it was, “Awesome” and said so on Facebook. She then wrote a review reflecting her enthusiastic opinion. Amazon rejected her review and directed her to their ‘Community Guidelines’. She went there and found that in order to publish a review she had to have spent AU$50 minimum; I imagine that is per year. I have discovered that this rule applies in every ‘Amazon Community’; in Britain, (Amazon.co.uk) for example, one must spend 50 pounds sterling in order to place reviews. The same holds for all the ‘Amazon Communities’.

It wasn’t always this way. Once it was easy and straightforward. You bought a book on Kindle and, if you had a mind to, you wrote a review. It made sense. Not anymore.

I’ve concluded that this financial threshold is the latest salvo in Amazon’s War on Fake Reviews.

Amazon has been waging this war since around 2012. And I so doing they’ve deleted vast numbers of reviews, many of them genuine and not in the least fraudulent. It appears that many innocent writers and reviewers are being cut down, ‘friendly fire’ casualties of Amazon’s unfeeling robots.

Authors are forbidden from holding the slightest relationship with a reviewer. So if a writer develops a group of fans those fans could be banned from writing reviews, as a fan club could be deemed a relationship by Amazon’s bots. Punishments can include banishment. For life. And there is no appeal. I’m told the entire Kindle store is run by robots and AI. Things are getting more than a little scary. And it appears that the war is largely a failure as the real scammers are getting through.

This latest move, placing a minimum of purchases, will, no doubt, have its effect. But reviewers who get their reviews rejected, like the Australian reader, will be put off from writing reviews; once bitten, twice shy.

At school, I was taught that it was a far, far better thing that a guilty man escapes justice than an innocent man suffers punishment. I feel that Amazon should take note. Far better that a few fraudulent reviews get through than so many genuine and honest reviews get deleted. Honest reviews benefit Amazon as well as the authors. What a pity they can’t seem to see that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having read, and enjoyed, Eric J. Gates thriller, ‘Outsourced’, I could hardly wait to immerse myself in its sequel, ‘Primed.’ I was not disappointed.
It is a terrific read and opens with a bang. As was the case with ‘Outsourced’, the storyline, plot, is complex and demands a reader’s attention; fast read, page-flippers are advised to slow down. But the rewards are commensurate and worthwhile.
I was especially pleased to meet again that spirited lady, Major Bridget Mason; a female protagonist in a macho, male-dominated world is just so refreshing.
Recovering from injuries incurred in the climax of the previous book, Mason is placed on light duty, given a purported ‘easy task’ assisting an NYPD cop, a long, lean laconic fellow nicknamed ‘the Dane’. And the repartee and dialogue between these two are fascinating.
The duo is tasked with investigating the suspicious suicide of a government contractor. This leads to a confrontation with the villains of the story; the ‘Bratva’, the Russian mafia.
Villains are as important to any story as the good guys, a point many writers fail to grasp, but one Mr. Gates knows well. And what a superb, dirty finger-nailed bunch of characters his bad guys turn out to be. Hard bastards who enjoy their work. Tooled up, Spetsnaz trained, they are efficient, brutal, and pitiless in dealing with adversaries and threats to their territory.
On a lighter side, our two squabbling writer friends, Stiles and Beasley are back playing their parts. And though not seen and kept hidden in the background, the tantalizing and awesome ‘Pen’ is also back on the scene.
Though it’s a sequel, ‘Primed’ carries sufficient backstory to make it a stand-alone novel. Nevertheless, for greater enjoyment, I advise readers to pick up ‘Outsourced’ first and follow it with ‘Primed.’
‘Primed’ is pretty high octane stuff. A tight, gripping thriller with a plot that’s pure magic, sharp characters, great dialogue and written in Mr. Gates engaging, fluent and inimitable style. And I’ll wager that it’s not a sequel at all, but rather number II in a developing series. I do hope so if only to meet again the lovely Bridget Mason.
‘Primed’, a novel, gets my best compliment; I could read it again. Highly recommended. Thank you, Mr. Gates.

How much can a misplaced comma cost you?

If you’re texting a loved one or dashing off an email to a colleague, the cost of misplacing a piece of punctuation will be – at worst – a red face and a minor mix-up.

But for some, contentious commas can be a path to the poor house.

A dairy company in the US city of Portland, Maine settled a court case for $5m earlier this year because of a missing comma.

Three lorry drivers for Oakhurst Dairy claimed that they were owed years of unpaid overtime wages, all because of the way commas were used in legislation governing overtime payments.

The state’s laws declared that overtime wasn’t due for workers involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1) agricultural produce; 2) meat and fish products; and 3) perishable foods”.

The drivers managed to successfully argue that because there was no comma after “shipment” and before “or distribution”, they were owed overtime pay. If a comma had been there, the law would have explicitly ruled out those who distribute perishable foods.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Workers load milk onto trucks at the Oakhurst dairy plant in 2013 (Credit: Getty Images)

Because there was confusion, the US Court of Appeals ruled in their favour, benefiting around 120 of the firm’s drivers. David Webbert, the lawyer who helped bring the case against the company, told reporters at the time that the inclusion of a comma in the clause “would have sunk our ship”. (He didn’t respond to interview requests from the BBC.)

The slightest misstep in punctuating a clause in a contract can have massive unintended consequences

The slip-up shows that the slightest misstep in punctuating a clause in a contract can have massive unintended consequences.

“Punctuation matters,” says Ken Adams, author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. But not all punctuation is made equal: contractual minefields are not seeded with semicolons or em-dashes (here’s one: – ) waiting to explode when tripped over.

“It boils down to commas,” says Adams. “They matter, and exactly how depends on the context.”

Delivering definition

Commas in contracts link separate clauses in a non-definitive way, leaving their reading open to interpretation. While a full stop is literally that – a full and complete stop to one thought or sentence, and the signal of the start of another – commas occupy a linguistic middle ground, and one that’s often muddled. “Commas are a proxy for confusion as to what part of a sentence relates to what,” Adams explains.

Commas occupy a linguistic middle ground, and one that’s often muddled

The English language is fluid, evolving and highly subjective. Arguments have been fought over the value of so-called Oxford commas (an optional comma before the word “and” or “or” at the end of a list). There might be good arguments on either side of the debate, but this doesn’t work for the law because there needs to be a definitive answer: yes or no. In high-stakes legal agreements, how commas are deployed is crucial to their meaning. And in the case of Oakhurst Dairy against its delivery drivers, the Oxford comma is judged to have favoured the latter’s meaning.

But just because you mean to say something, it doesn’t mean that a court will agree with you, says Jeff Nobles, a Texas-based appellate lawyer who was involved in an insurance case that hinged, in part, on the punctuation of a contract.

According to Nobles, most US courts will say it doesn’t really matter what the parties subjectively intended; it’s the objective intent in the written terms of their contract. “Punctuation sometimes will change the meaning of a sentence,” he says.

Nobles represented an insurance company in a Texas Supreme Court case concerning insurance coverage for a worker who died on the job.

Nobles argued successfully that punctuation mattered for a contractual indemnity provision, when the company tried to trigger coverage under its umbrella insurance policy after a subcontracted employee died on the job. It set a precedent in the state’s legal system, he believes.

He says US courts have become increasingly textual – “they’ve looked more and more at the words on the paper rather than the testimony of the people who used those words on the paper.”

Yet arguments over commas have been raging for more than a century.

‘An expensive comma’

In 1872, an American tariff law including an unwanted comma cost taxpayers nearly $2m (the equivalent of $40m today). The United States Tariff Act, as originally drafted in 1870, allowed “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” to be exempt from import tariffs.

For an unknown reason, when revised two years later, a stray comma sneaked in between “fruit” and “plants”. Suddenly all tropical and semi-tropical fruits could be imported without any charge.

(Credit: Getty Images)

An 1872 tiff over tariffs and tropical fruit cost taxpayers $40m – all caused by a comma (Credit: Getty Images)

Members of the US Congress debated the issue and the problem was fixed – but not before the New York Times bemoaned the use of “An Expensive Comma”. It wouldn’t be the last such error.

Contract language is like software code: do it right and everything works smoothly. But make a typo and the whole thing falls apart

“Contract language is limited and stylised,” says Adams. He compares it to software code: do it right and everything works smoothly. But make a typo and the whole thing falls apart.

When errors are introduced into legal documents, they’re likely to be noticed far more than in any other form of writing, he says. “People are more prone to fighting over instances of syntactic ambiguity than in other kinds of writing.”

Muddying the waters

Of course, in some circumstances, those drafting contracts may want to introduce ambiguities. Getting different countries to sign up to the same principles can be challenging, particularly for climate change agreements.

Early climate change conventions included this line:

The Parties have a right to, and should, promote sustainable development.”

The sentence ensures those signing the agreement have the ability to promote sustainable development – and should do so.

But in its original draft, the second comma was placed after “promote”, not before it:

The Parties have a right to, and should promote, sustainable development.”

Some countries weren’t happy with the original wording because they didn’t necessarily want to be locked into promoting sustainable development. Moving the comma kept the naysayers happy while placating those who wanted stronger action.

“By being slightly creative with punctuation, countries can feel like their interests have been addressed,” explains Stephen Cornelius, chief advisor on climate change with the WWF, who has represented the UK and EU at UN climate change negotiations. “You’re trying to get an agreement that people can substantially agree with.”

(Credit: Getty Images)

Most people try to make contract language as clear as possible – but sometimes leaving a bit of ambiguity can help both sides negotiate better (Credit: Getty Images)

Tricks of the trade

Such linguistic flexibility happens more often than you’d think.

“In diplomacy, even though you try to have a single agreement, it’s very common to change the meaning for different parties,” says climate change negotiator Laura Hanning Scarborough. “You can use terms like ‘inter alia’, or ‘this includes, amongst other things’ to blur the lines to include anything. You can use commas as part of that, too. There are so many language tricks you use to appease people.”

For most people, however, making sure that contracts are unambiguous is important. For that reason, it’s crucial to test contract language to breaking point by giving it to someone who will test its limits – someone who will read it in the most awkward, unhelpful way, says Tiffany Kemp, a commercial contracting trainer for the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management.

One of the biggest cases battled over a comma was a dispute between two Canadian telecommunications companies. Rogers Communications and Bell Aliant fought a legal battle worth CAD$1m ($760,000) over a contract to replace utility poles across the country.

The argument stemmed from a single sentence:

“This 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 two sides argued that the comma after “five (5) year terms” meant something different: Bell Aliant said that the single year’s notice of termination applied at any time, Rogers that it only applied after the first five-year term ended.

This was important as Rogers had struck a great deal under their reading of the contract: when they signed a contract to lease the poles from Bell Aliant in 2002, they were paying just CAD$9.60 per pole. By 2004, the cost had nearly doubled. Bell Aliant, understandably, wanted to terminate the contract and renegotiate at the new, higher price. Rogers didn’t.

Successive courts were equally uncertain about the agreement: Canada’s Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission first declared in favour of Bell Aliant in 2006; a year later, it changed its mind after consulting the French language version of the contract, which didn’t include the same ambiguity.

This dispute wasn’t brought about by wilful ignorance, reckons Kemp. “Sometimes there are genuinely different understandings,” she explains. “That little comma was put in a place that you would put in a place for a breath if you’re reading it out loud.”

Deadly punctuation

How do these misplaced or misused commas make their way into complicated contracts that have been drafted by professionals? Part of the problem, says Adams, is technology. “Drafting contracts has long been a function of copying and pasting from precedent contracts, and that results in a kind of heedlessness, a detachment from the nitty gritty of how you’ve expressed what you want to express in a contract,” he says. “It’s easy to miss this sort of problem.”

In one extreme example, a misplaced comma was at the heart of a death-penalty trial

In one extreme example, a misplaced comma was at the heart of a death-penalty trial.

Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, was hanged in 1916 under the 1351 Treason Act. He had incited Irish prisoners of war being held in Germany to band together to fight against the British. The debate over whether Casement was guilty hinged on the wording of the 14th Century Treason Act and the use of a comma: with it, Casement’s actions in Germany were illegal; without it, he would get away with it.

Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist,

Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, was hanged in 1916 (Credit: Getty Images)

Despite Casement’s lead counsel’s assertion that “crimes should not depend on the significance of breaks or of commas”, and “if a crime depended on a comma, the matter should be determined in favour of the accused, and not of the Crown”, the court ruled that the comma mattered. Casement was found guilty and executed.

Though today life and death doesn’t hinge on the use of commas – but big money, insurance policies and environmental agreements certainly do.

For that reason, it’s important to carefully check any contracts we sign, the experts say – and that means not just dotting the Is and crossing the Ts but also making sure every comma is in the correct place.

People sign contracts not because they’ve negotiated their meanings, but based on their own understanding of what they’re agreeing to, explains Nobles. Contracts written by lawyers on behalf of a business might have a different meaning than what the lay person understands.

So it pays to pay attention. If a piece of punctuation seems out of place or introduces ambiguity, speak up.

“The purpose of a contract is to help people get the outcomes they both expected, and to know what they’re supposed to do and get from the other side,” says Kemp.

“If there’s a misunderstanding, you owe it to both of you to get it sorted out. Have the argument today, rather than tomorrow.”

It could prevent a lot of pain in the future.

‘An author’s works are public property; he who purchases may judge, and publish his opinion if he pleases; and the authors I have endeavoured to commemorate may do by me as I have done by them. I dare say they will succeed better in condemning my scribblings, than in mending their own. But my object is not to prove that I can write well, but, if possible, to make others write better.’                                                                                                                                                           Byron.