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Visa Inc., MasterCard Inc. and some large banks agreed to pay scores of retailers—from giant Publix Supermarkets Inc. to an interior-design store in Minnesota—more than $6 billion to settle a long-running lawsuit, in a pact that also permits merchants to charge more to customers who pay with credit cards. — WSJ

How would the meaning change if that comma between "lawsuit" and "in a pact" is removed?

Another example:

  • The two sides have agreed to stop fighting in a pact that allows further peace talks.
  • The two sides have agreed to stop fighting, in a pact that allows further peace talks.
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Also see Charge more to customers, a Nortonn S question –  jwpat7 Jul 16 '12 at 16:37
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2 Answers 2

It would not change the meaning at all in this case. Removing the comma could conceivably shift the referent of "in a pact" from "agreed" to "lawsuit", except that it makes no sense to consider a lawsuit as part of a pact, at least in this context.

Edit to answer OP's comment question: Example where the meaning could arguably change:

  • The kids agreed to stop fighting after dinner. They have been fighting after dinner...but now they have agreed to stop.

  • The kids agreed to stop fighting, after dinner. They fought at any time, and it was not until after dinner that they agreed to stop.

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I added another example in my original post. So, these are the same? –  Nortonn S Jul 16 '12 at 16:54
    
Arguably clues as to the linguistic competence of the writer are part of the meaning (or, at least, "meta-meaning"). In such a convoluted sentence as OP's example, I think any competent writer would include the comma, so the lack of it would tell me the writer wasn't actually very good at his job. –  FumbleFingers Jul 16 '12 at 17:08
    
Thank you for your reply, JeffSahol! For the kids fighting example, I see they both could mean that 1) the agreement took place after dinner, or 2) the agreement was for a post-dinner stoppage of the fighting. Which sentence should have which meaning? –  Nortonn S Jul 16 '12 at 17:52
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Both of your examples could mean that the kids agreed that they would continue to fight until they had had dinner, when they would stop. –  Andrew Leach Jul 16 '12 at 18:29
    
Agreed, @AndrewLeach. There is no perfect example (one that is unambiguously defined by the presence or absence of the comma), ... I was just trying to help the OP with his questions. –  JeffSahol Jul 16 '12 at 18:55
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It would change the meaning entirely in this case. Removing the comma would conceivably shift the referent of "in a pact" from "agreed" to "lawsuit", except that it makes no sense to consider a lawsuit as part of a pact, at least in this context.

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