When Punctuation and Law Collide

As freelance writers, we are all very much aware of the importance of grammar and punctuation. We know that all sorts of confusion can arise from improper usage. Sometimes it can be quite hilarious. Check out this incident I read about at The Spokesman-Review:

A little punctuation can make a lot of difference.

When Bob Strick and Vicki Tomsha had business at the Spokane County Courthouse on June 2, they drove around from parking lot to parking lot, looking for some free public parking.

Lot after lot required a permit or some cash.

They thought they hit pay dirt in the little lot at Madison Street and College Avenue, just south of the courthouse. Lot D. The sign read: NO PUBLIC PARKING PERMIT REQUIRED.

Most of us would probably infer the sign’s intended meaning: No parking without a permit. But Strick and Tomsha – both of whom are from out of town and rarely go to the courthouse – said they took the sign at its literal, grammatical, face value: No permit required.

“We thought, ‘Cool,’ and we pulled in,” said Strick, a 71-year-old retired mill owner. “We don’t have signs like that in Kettle Falls. We thought it was a long-winded way of saying this was public parking.”

Strick and Tomsha, friends who had driven separately and met there, returned to find $30 parking tickets on each of their cars. Tomsha looked at the sign again. There was no comma or dash or semicolon or period between NO PUBLIC PARKING and PERMIT REQUIRED. The words were the same size and font, not separated by any space.

“I stood there and read it five times,” said Tomsha, a 64-year-old hospice worker from Deer Park. “I thought, OK, I guess if it had some punctuation in it, it would mean an entirely different thing. … But if you just read it at face value, what it says is what it says.”

What would you have done in you were in their place? Common sense would probably reveal the intended meaning of the sign. However, if you do stick by your grammar guns, then you would have done what the couple did.

They were given fines, but they took a photo of the sign and went to court. Guess what? They won!

I have no idea who this couple is or what their background is, but I don’t know about you – I have to admire their tenacity. Indeed, the statement “NO PUBLIC PARKING PERMIT REQUIRED” can easily be interpreted as “you don’t need a permit to park in the public area.” Without punctuation between the “parking” and “permit,” there is no doubt about that – grammatically.

This highlights the importance of grammar in daily life. Writer or not, this kind of thing makes you realize that grammar does have its practical uses, doesn’t it?

Do you have any interesting/amusing experiences with incorrect grammar/punctuation?






2 responses
  1. BJ Muntain Avatar

    This comma was even more costly – happened in Canada a few years ago:


    My favourite proof that grammar matters!

    1. Noemi Twigg Avatar
      Noemi Twigg

      That’s a very expensive comma!

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