Sandstone Press

Can punctuation save a life?

I have this dream that one day, I'll send my publisher a manuscript that contains no mistakes. Sadly, I know that it doesn’t matter how many times I read it over – when the manuscript goes to proofing, they’ll find hordes of missing words, typos and dodgy punctuation.

Punctuation is especially in the news these days. On the one hand, we have a callous disregard for it in text messages and email; on the other there is the ‘Apostrophiser’, a grammar vigilante who stalks the high streets of our land (or Bristol at any rate) seeking out and correcting apostrophe disasters on shop signs, raising standards and lowering the blood pressure of grammarians. 

But poor punctuation can harm more than just feelings. In 2006 the presence of a single comma allowed a telephone company to terminate early a contract with Canada’s largest cable television provider, costing the latter one million dollars in revenue. Just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeal decided that the absence of an ‘Oxford’ comma in an employment contract was going to sting a Maine dairy company $10 million in unpaid overtime to workers.

And misplaced punctuation can cost more than money. I carry about in my briefcase a page from the transcript of an interview one of my clients (accused of murder) had with the police. It is a reminder of how incorrect punctuation nearly sent my client to prison on a life sentence.  

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The allegation was that the accused had orchestrated the abduction and subsequent murder of a business acquaintance. It was one of those cases where the police didn't use the evidence to seek a suspect, but found a suspect and tried to tailor some evidence to fit. My client had originally come forward as a witness and freely told the police that he’d seen the deceased on the day he went missing. Ten years later, with the police no further forward, and because my client was the last person known to have seen the deceased alive, he found himself standing trial in the High Court

In the witness box, his position was that on that last day he'd met the deceased purely by chance when leaving a city centre gym. He had no prior knowledge that the deceased used that particular gym, far less that he would be there at a certain time – so how would he know to arrange an abduction there?That was when he was presented with Crown Production 189 – the transcript of his interview with the police several years previously. In answer to the question, ‘When, before the date of his disappearance, did you last see the deceased?’ My client had answered, ‘It was the week before. I met him at the gym.’  From which it seemed clear he had now changed his story. He did know the deceased frequented the gym. He'd met him there only a week prior to the alleged abduction. It was the one shoogly pillar holding up an otherwise unshakeable version of events given by the accused. I could see my client was stunned and for the first time, uncertain, but he stuck to his earlier evidence that, no matter what was in the interview transcript, he had never previously met the deceased at the gym.

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That was when the time spent not only perusing the transcript of the interview, but listening to the recording, all three hours of it, paid off. For when the defence insisted that the audio version be played to the jury, rather than rely on the more convenient written version they'd been provided with, it became obvious that whoever at Crown Office had typed the transcript had added a fullstop where none should be. The true answer had been, ‘It was the week before I met him at the gym.’ A single dot on a piece of paper had turned one sentence into two, given completely the opposite impression from what was actually stated at the interview and made the accused look like a liar.

Rather than weaken his credibility, the fact that the accused had not tried to come up with another explanation when initially faced with what was set down in black and white, only served to give his entire testimony the ring of truth and he was duly acquitted. 

Proofreading. I hate it, but it’s a necessary evil. When the devil is in the detail, sometimes you need angels on the margins.


WHS McIntyre will be at Crimefest on the 19th of May for Bring Lawyers, Guns And Money: It Might Be Legal, But Is It Just?

Read an exclusive extract of Good News, Bad News at Books From Scotland.