Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Unfortunate Case of Sir Roger Casement

I've talked many times about the importance of serial commas and how commas can make a huge difference in the interpretation of a sentence. Sir Roger Casement should know—he was, quite literally, hanged by a comma. 

Casement, an anti-Imperialist, was accused of treasonous acts in Germany during World War I.  Under Britain’s Treason Act of 1351 (yes—1351), treason was committed:

If a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and conform in the realm, or elsewhere….
The Crown alleged Casement had given aid to the King’s enemies in Germany.  Casement’s counsel argued that the Act applied only to activities carried out in Britain or on British soil.  Because of the existence of the comma after “giving to them aid and conform in the realm,” the court determined that a person could be guilty of treason if he gave aid to an enemy of the British Empire on British soil “or elsewhere.”  Because Casement aided enemies of the Empire in Germany, he was convicted of treason and hanged in 1916.

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