The comma that let a Malaysian airline sneak in

March 8, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Thomson Reuters)

AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes has big plans for his budget airline. This week, the government approved the Malaysian carrier’s proposal to set up a new airline in India with the Tata group – and it happened thanks to a comma.

The Economic Times reported on Thursday, that the punctuation mark saved the joint venture, with India’s foreign investment regulator interpreting a 2012 ministry press note to mean foreign investments were also allowed for newly created airlines.

“The government of India has reviewed the position in this regard and decided to permit foreign airlines also to invest, in the capital of Indian companies, operating scheduled and non-scheduled air transport services, up to the limit of 49% of their paid-up capital,” the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion said in its press note on Sept. 20 last year.

Had there been no comma after “companies”, things would have been clear. It would have meant foreign airlines could only invest in existing carriers. The newspaper reports that the ambiguous comma allowed finance ministry officials to argue in favour of the 800 million rupee ($15 million) joint venture, even though officials in the aviation ministry questioned it.

It’s not the first time that a misplaced (or perhaps a strategically placed) comma has had an impact on business.

In 2006, a Canadian commission ruled against cable giant Rogers Communications based on its interpretation of a superfluous comma in their contract with Bell Aliant. That comma was worth a million Canadian dollars.

But things did end well for Rogers. A year later, the regulator overturned the decision and decided to go by the French-language version of the contract – which had no errant commas.

The humble punctuation mark, first developed by Aldus Manutius in the 16th century, was also at the centre of a courtroom drama between U.S. automaker Chrysler and a California resident.

Unfortunately, government and legal documents in India (and around the world) are peppered with commas. Bureaucrats would be well advised to improve their grammar and punctuation skills, or risk getting “hanged on a comma“.

(I inserted an unnecessary comma in this post. Where is it? Comment below if you find it)
(Follow Tony on Twitter @tonytharakan)


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Right after Thursday in the second paragraph of this story.

Posted by paritoshzero | Report as abusive

Second para, after Thursday.

Posted by AnupamVarma | Report as abusive

Exactly. Thanks!

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

-Had there been no comma after *“companies”,* things would have been clear.-


Posted by DotHeff | Report as abusive

After the word “Thursday”?

Posted by JandEGma | Report as abusive

What is the sentence of the offending comma in the legal document?

Posted by Joelynn | Report as abusive

Right! In addition, I would argue that after punctuation skills (last paragraph), a comma is also not necessary.
Ueli Meier, Norway

Posted by ueli00 | Report as abusive

Yes indeed!

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

Actually, things would have been clearER. :)

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

I am confused by the comma after invest?

Posted by AMLees | Report as abusive

“Thursday, that”

Posted by si-idiomas | Report as abusive

Yes, clearer. The note would have made more sense without any commas and fewer words.



Posted by kneetoe | Report as abusive

…up to the limit of 49% of their paid-up capital,

This sentence should end in a fullstop/period. Not a comma.

Posted by writescorp | Report as abusive

gr8 news for tata group, who have been trying to invest in indian airlines, since the time it was forcibly made a PSU airlines.
only the indian airlines needs to worry now, ’cause tata doesn’t forget or forgive…

Posted by dipakkumardas | Report as abusive