Burger van Dyk

Let’s eat Grandpa.
Let’s eat, Grandpa

Just by adding a comma can change the meaning of what you want to say. In this example it can save Grandpa’s life.

This may be a funny example. However it you end up in court because of incorrect interpretation of punctuation it is not funny anymore.

As an example of the purpose and importance of interpreting the punctuation I refer to Qwelane v South African Human Rights Commission and Another .

Not going into the details or merits of this specific matter the court had to decide on how to interpret section 10 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000.

Section 10 reads as follows:

“Subject to the proviso in section 12, no person may publish, propagate, advocate or communicate words based on one or more of the prohibited grounds, against any person, that could reasonably be construed to demonstrate a clear intention to –

(a) be hurtful;
(b) be harmful or to incite harm;
(c) promote or propagate hatred.”

The court decided that if the first two subsections, which appear after the dash, are not connected by the word ‘and’ after the semi-colons it cannot be intended that it be construed conjunctively. The Supreme Court of Appeal found that, based on the fact that paragraphs (a) (c) of the impugned section are not connected by the conjunction “and”, but are separated by a semicolon, they should be interpreted disjunctively.

Judge Majiedt in the case of Commissioner for the South African Revenue Services v Daikin Air Conditioning South Africa (Pty) Limited  also emphasised the importance of a comma. They had to interpret the use of a comma in the following section:

“This subheading covers air conditioning machines of window or wall types, self-contained or split-system”.

The comma between “window or wall types” and “self-contained or split-system” indicates that the latter phrase qualifies or describes the nature of the two types of air conditioners, being window or wall types. If the comma is removed, the interpretation would change to mean that the self-contained or split-system describes the wall type air-conditioning only.

Looking at the above case law (and there are others) it is important to understand the punctuation in contracts, title deed conditions and in legislation to understand the proper meaning of such contract, title deed or legislation. Punctuation are very often overlooked and not seen as providing any meaning. However, as can be seen above, it is important to take note of punctuation to see how the courts could interpret such legislation or contracts. To qoute Judge van der Westhuizen in the case  of Auto Alpina v Abrina 3765 Pty Ltd (another example of the use of punctuation):

“Punctuation has purpose… [it is] an important tool in ascribing meaning, idea,
thought, intention and mood to what the author of the written words seeks to impart
or convey to the reader.”