September 24

The Apocalypse Comma


Nobody expected a comma would cause the end of the world.

A missing comma, to be exact.

The draft treaty between governments had been in heated revisions for months.  Particular care was given to the Cause for Retaliation section, and the delineation of scenarios that would result in Nuclear Escalation.

Considering the language difference, each word needed to be precise to avoid any confusion during translation.

The key passage turned out to be the following:

“In the event that either party is found to have provided direct or indirect support, whether through military, police, or government personnel, through conveyance of monies, or preparing for shipment or distribution of weapons or weaponizable ingredients to known terrorist individuals or organizations, this treaty will hereby be declared null and void…”

The back-and-forth and fine-tuning concentrated on the words themselves.  Whether “weaponizable” belonged, or was even a word, occupied news headlines for two weeks.  It was crossed out, replaced with a longer phrase, then restored in the final version.

With each draft, however, the syntax grew more convoluted.  In addition to the words, the participants should have given more thought to the grammar.

Less than a month after the treaty was approved, to world-wide fanfare, one of the parties supplied “weaponizable ingredients” to a hostile organization.  When caught, they pointed to the phrase, “preparing for shipment or distribution of weapons.”  There was no comma after “shipment” in the treaty language; since they hadn’t actually “prepared” the items they distributed to terrorists, this country argued, they had not violated the terms of the agreement.

An international debate over grammar arose.  The potentially clarifying mark of punctuation, a speck of ink on one page of a long-fought thirty page document, became known as The Apocalypse Comma.

Eventually, one of the parties decided Nuclear Escalation would have more argumentative force than nit-picking over grammar.  Other countries followed in kind.

The comma became an end stop.


[written to commemorate National Punctuation Day]