A simple comma apparently misplaced in a policy statement saved a $15 million aviation joint venture deal between two conglomerates, AirAsia and Tatas.

The joint venture proposal filed by the Malaysian-based AirAsia and India’s Tatas became a bone of contention between the Indian Finance Ministry and the Civil Aviation Ministry, as the ministries differed in their interpretation of a government press statement, pointing to a strategically placed comma in it.

The September 2012 statement issued by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion announcing the Indian government's decision to approve 49 percent foreign direct investment in the aviation sector read: “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 percent of their paid-up capital.”

Apparently, the second comma in the sentence placed after ‘Indian companies’ proved to be the dealmaker. Had there been no comma there, the sentence would have clearly communicated that foreign airlines would be allowed “to invest, in the capital of (existing) Indian companies operating scheduled and non-scheduled air transport services,” which the Civil Aviation Ministry argued was the intention of the government’s FDI policy. In such an instance, the AirAsia-Tata joint venture would not have secured the necessary clearance to launch a new air carrier.

But the Finance Ministry, pointing to the comma in the statement, argued that the policy allows FDI in new ventures.

According to an Economic Times report, the presence of second comma rescued the 800 million rupee ($15 million) joint venture between AirAsia and Tatas as the Foreign Investment Promotion Board's meeting held Wednesday approved the deal, interpreting the sentence, by giving weight to the comma.

The report quoting two people familiar with the FIPB deliberations said the Finance Ministry and DIPP officials explained in the meeting that the strategically placed comma in the government order allowed fresh investments in the sector.

“In coming to its decision, FIPB has given weight to the part of the press note that says 'in the capital of Indian companies, operating scheduled...' while allowing the investment,” they said.

Other Instances Where A Comma Made An Impact

It is not the first case where the most frequently used punctuation mark has become a decision-maker.

In 2006, a Canadian commission ruled against cable giant Rogers Communications based on its interpretation of a superfluous comma in their contract with the telephone company Bell Aliant.

A sentence in the 14-page contract read: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

According to Rogers, the contract runs for five years and automatically renews for another five years, unless either of the companies cancels the agreement before the start of the final 12 months.

However, Bell Alliant canceled the agreement a little after an year and the regulator ruled in favor of the telephone company, stating that second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both, the five-year term as well as its renewal, The New York Times reported.

The ruling, later overturned by the regulator after it decided to go with the French version of the contract, would have cost Rogers a million Canadian dollars.

Another such instance points to a clerical error of misplacing a comma in the tariff act passed June 6, 1872, that cost the U.S. government millions of dollars. A clerk accidently altered the sentence: "Fruit plants, tropical and semitropical" to "Fruit, plants tropical and semitropical" therefore exempting all tropical and semitropical plants from duty fees.

Apart from those cited above, there are several other instances where a misplaced comma created an adverse impact on people's lives.

In 1983, an industrial tribunal ruled against nurse Angela Penfold, ending her job at a health career center in Bovey Tracey. Penfold wrote to health officials complaining that her senior nurse was making her life “hell” but used the comma at a wrong place in her letter.

The letter read: “I have come to the opinion Mrs. Pepperell is out to make my life hell, so I give in my notice.” The comma made health authorities think she was resigning. While what Penfold intended to convey was that her senior nurse was making her life hell, forcing her to give a notice.