When I taught freshman composition some years ago, my students would challenge me on the utility of learning grammar and punctuation. “How will this make a difference in our daily lives?” was a common formulation.
It’s not an unreasonable question. A story out of West Jefferson, Ohio, provides a reasonable answer. There in 2014, resident Andrea Cammelleri received a ticket for parking her pickup truck on a street that —according to the precise letter of the law — banned parking “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implemented and/or non-motorized vehicle” for more than 24 hours. But it is the precise letter that enabled Cammelleri to walk without paying a cent of the fine.
She pointed out to the judge in traffic court that she did not own or drive a motor vehicle camper. Her argument turned on a missing comma between “motor vehicle” and “camper” in the ordinance. Although the judge was unimpressed, Cammelleri took her case to a higher court and on June 22 of this year won her appeal:
[12th District Court of Appeals] Judge Robert A. Hendrickson … decided in favor of the punctuation-conscious appellant, as outlined in his decision….
“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,'” the decision said. “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.'”
Cammelleri not only had the fine waived but was reimbursed for filing costs and other fees incurred.
The judge interpreted the law quite literally, taking the language of the ordinance at face value. Would that the Supreme Court of the United States had been half as circumspect in its handling of King v. Burwell.