A Missing Comma and a Court Case

What’s a motor vehicle camper? That’s an odd term!

A few years ago, the term “motor vehicle camper” created some controversy in the village of West Jefferson, Ohio. The underlying problem was a missing comma. There’s a useful lesson here for anyone who does job-related writing, especially in criminal justice.

The village had an ordinance requiring that vehicles had to be moved off the street before nightfall. To make sure everyone understood, the ordinance included a list: “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle.”

What they meant – of course – was “any motor vehicle, camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle.”

Back in February 2014, Andrea Cammelleri left her pickup truck parked on a street overnight. She was cited and decided to appeal. She told the judge that her pickup truck wasn’t a “motor vehicle camper.” It didn’t have any camping accessories or equipment 

Judge Robert A. Hendrickson read the ordinance, saw the term “motor vehicle camper,” and agreed with her. Here’s what he 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.”

This story is a useful reminder that punctuation – even the lowly comma! – is there for a reason. It’s not just the domain of cranky English teachers. Commas clarify and simplify.

You can download a free handout about commas at Commas Made Simple.

Male figure holding up a comma

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