The unassuming comma might look like the most harmless of punctuation marks, but these little devils can be quite dangerous.
How could wee squiggles cause such big problems? The BBC recently published a piece that documents several instances of misplaced commas that cost companies dearly. The article references the recent saga of a Maine dairy company that got milked for $5 million because of a missing comma. As related by the BBC:
The state’s laws declared that overtime wasn’t due for workers involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1) agricultural produce; 2) meat and fish products; and 3) perishable foods”.
The drivers managed to successfully argue that because there was no comma after “shipment” and before “or distribution”, they were owed overtime pay. If a comma had been there, the law would have explicitly ruled out those who distribute perishable foods.
This is hardly a new issue, however. The BBC piece revisits a famous fruit flap from the 1870s that arose because of an extraneous comma: