Costly commas and other pricey punctuation goofs

The smallest of marks can alter the meaning of a sentence—or an entire contract—and cost companies millions.  

Costly commas

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:

In 1872, an American tariff law including an unwanted comma cost taxpayers nearly $2 million (the equivalent of $40 million today). The United States Tariff Act, as originally drafted in 1870, allowed “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” to be exempt from import tariffs.

For an unknown reason, when revised two years later, a stray comma sneaked in between “fruit” and “plants”. Suddenly all tropical and semi-tropical fruits could be imported without any charge.

The BBC highlights one example where a single comma was the deciding factor in a high-profile 1916 death penalty case. Thankfully, capital punishment cases no longer hang on comma placement. However, as the article says, “but big money, insurance policies and environmental agreements certainly do.”

You could add business or professional reputations to that list, too. Woe to the corporate communicator who misuses punctuation and publishes, prints or approves something akin to:

  • “She enjoys cooking her family and her cats.”
  • “Slow kids at play.”
  • “No trespassing violators will be prosecuted.”

Let these tales of punctuation ruination be a reminder to all who write, edit and craft content that your work does, indeed, make a difference. What kind of difference depends heavily on your comma placement, inclusion or omission.

Read the rest of the BBC’s piece here, and brush up on comma basics here.

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