Hanged on a comma

Posted on Tue 11 Jul 2017 @ 12.00pm UTC

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Hangman's noose tattoo by John Embry


WHAT does the phrase “hanged on a comma” mean?

The full phrase was “men have been hanged on a comma in a statute.” A statute is law.

The phrase “hanged on a comma” has passed into the body of English idioms to mean convicted and/or executed on a technicality rather than on factual culpability.

The phrase is basically a maxim for precise legal drafting or translation and/or precise legal interpretation — because any ambiguity or rogue use of language or punctuation (metaphorically denoted by “a comma”) may mean life or death for the affected individual (or class of individuals).

Background info for the curious:—

The whole idea behind that phrase ultimately traces to the Treason Act 1351 (25 Edw 3 stat. 5), one of the earliest English statutes still in force in the UK. The 666-year-old Act was last used in 1945 to prosecute (and execute) William Joyce (1906–45) for collaborating with Nazi Germany.

Sir Roger Casement escorted by the police, 1916
(via pinterest)

The phrase is most famously associated with the English treason case of Sir Roger Casement (1864–1916), the Irish nationalist who was executed in 1916 under that Act. He was generally said to have been “literally hanged on a comma.”

The trouble with the Treason Act 1351 is that it’s written in Norman French:—

Treason Act 1351

(via IP Draughts)

The usual English legal translation of that Normal French legalese is this:—

“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 them aid and conform in the realm, or elsewhere…”

The importance of commas (and serial commas) can make a huge difference in the interpretation of a statute.

In Casement’s case, he was accused of treasonous acts in Germany during the First World War. The question was, did the law apply to acts of treason performed abroad?

Crown Prosecution alleged Casement gave aid to the King’s enemies in Germany.

Casement’s defence lawyers argued the Act applied only to activities done in Britain or on British territory — so anything done outside the British Empire didn’t or shouldn’t amount to treason.

via Living Toronto Journal

(via Living Toronto Journal)

The answer fell on literally a pair of commas in the Act’s English-language wording.

The Act was so damned old that the meaning was no longer clear (even in English).

The judges went to the Public Records Office to have a look at the original parchment. The judges saw markings and interpreted them as punctuation.

As can be seen in the above quotation, there is a wrinkle. The English-language translation has three commas in the series (highlighted in RED). It’s not precisely clear which was meant to be the first comma in the pair —

  • Was it the first one (after “our Lord the King in his realm”)?
  • Or the second one (after “the King’s enemies in his realm”)?

I never saw the original parchment myself. I don’t have high enough status to have that kind of access. The parchment isn’t on public display either. I’m not a betting man myself, yet my money is on that six-centuries-old document NOT looking anything like punctuation.

As is most usually explained in various places, it’s the second comma that’s taken to be part of the comma pair. If you ask me (or my law professor), it’s the very first one.

The court determined that Casement was guilty of treason on two scores:—

(a) the commas meant Britain and British territory overseas; and

(b) “or elsewhere” meaning anywhere in the world even if not a British territory.

In other words, the statutory interpretation was that the paragraph was meant to be read like this:—

“If a person carried out a treasonous act against the Crown (or be allied to and/or aiding and abetting the enemies of the Crown) in British territory or any other territory in the world…”

So Casement was literally hanged because of those three crappy commas.

Frankly, it would’ve been easier just to convict and hang solely for having carried out a treasonous act against the Crown without regard to place (or commas) and be done with it.

It’s clear enough that was the intent of the government (and the courts) anyway, and needn’t have to mess around with the commas.


© Learn English or Starve, 11 July 2017. Original text 10 Dec 2015. (B17088)

Featured image:— Hangman’s Noose tattoo by John Embry of Broadwing Tattoo, Bowling Green, Ohio, USA (via imgur).

Shortlink to this article: http://wp.me/pXuWK-2am

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