Grammar nerds are a committed league who often fight the good fight in the hope of seeing their victories spelled out on the page. But every once in a while, the consequences of proper punctuation leap from 2-D print into 3-D courtroom drama. (Insert Law & Order sound effects.)
In 2014, Andrea Cammelleri was ticketed for a pretty run-of-the-mill offense: leaving her pickup truck parked on a street for too long. Specifically, the village ordinance in West Jefferson, Ohio said it was against the law to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” longer than 24 hours.
That language is pretty cut and dry, but upon closer reading, you might notice something fishy. Cammelleri did. At her trial, the defendant argued “the ordinance did not apply because the language prohibits a motor vehicle camper from being parked on the street for an extended period of time.”
Cammelleri doesn’t have a “motor vehicle camper” because, well, what the heck is a motor vehicle camper? The ordinance should have read “motor vehicle, camper…”
The court argued that anyone reading the ordinance would know that it was a typo and simply missing a comma. Cammelleri was convicted, but she wasn’t done with her punctuation crusade. She filed an appeal.
This time, the scales of justice went the way the grammar gods would want. In his ruling, 12th District Court of Appeals Judge Robert A. Hendrickson wrote, “By utilizing rules of grammar and employing the common meaning of terms, 'motor vehicle camper' has a clear definition that does not produce an absurd result. If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and the word ‘camper.’”
Whether it was a clever trick to get out of a pesky parking citation, or an earnest quest to right this world’s comma crimes, Cammelleri illustrated why proper punctuation shouldn’t be just a matter of style—it should be the law of the land.