• 4-minute read
  • 11th May 2019

5 Expensive Comma Typos from History

You might not give commas much thought on a day-to-day basis. They’re just punctuation. But what if we told you that one misplaced comma could cost your business millions? Strap in, then, and join us for a look at five of the most expensive comma typos in history.

1. James Joyce’s Unwanted Commas ($300,000)

The experimental style of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses included many deliberate errors, such as passages of unpunctuated text. Unfortunately, those faced with transcribing his manuscripts sometimes “corrected” these errors. And one well-meaning volunteer added hundreds of commas to a 40-page passage that was meant to be entirely comma free!

James Joyce: Literary visionary, proofreader's nightmare.
James Joyce: Literary visionary, proofreader’s nightmare.

These comma typos were reproduced in each edition of the book until the 1980s, when a new version was released with the commas removed and other deliberate errors restored. But this process cost around $300,000, so you can see why hiring a good editor is worth the money!

2. Rogers Communications Inc. vs. Bell Aliant ($525,000)

Comma placement gave rise to a dispute between Rogers Communications and Bell Aliant worth over half a million dollars. The comma typo in question lies somewhere in this passage:

Subject to the termination provisions of this Agreement, this Agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.

Did you spot it? It’s the comma before “unless” that caused the problem. Bell Aliant took it to mean that the clause about terminating the contract applied to the initial five-year period. But Rogers Communications argued it only applied if the contract was renewed after this initial period.

In the end, the parties resolved the issue by checking the French version of the contract. Thankfully, this version was free from comma typos.

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3. An Oxford Comma in Maine ($5,000,000)

Leaving a serial comma (i.e., a comma before the final item in a list) out of a contract cost a dairy company in Maine five million dollars. This came after a dispute with its drivers about overtime.

In particular, Maine’s overtime law contains a clause about exemptions from overtime that uses the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The dairy company said that “distribution” was meant to be a separate item in this list. But without a comma to make this clear, the drivers successfully argued that they were owed overtime and forced the company to settle.

4. The US Government vs. Fruit ($38,400,000)

Rather than a missing comma, an unwanted comma in US Tariff Act of 1872 cost the US Government two million dollars (around $38.4 million in today’s money). The issue arose because of a clause that exempted “fruit plants” from import tariffs. Or that was the intention, at least.

However, someone added a comma between “fruit” and “plants.” And since fruit was expensive, importers took advantage of this loophole until it was closed two years later, by which point US taxpayers had lost out on revenue. Presumably, though, they gained access to affordable bananas.

You could buy a lot of fruit for $38.4 million.
You could buy a lot of fruit for $38.4 million.

5. Lockheed Martin vs. Inflation ($70,000,000)

Lockheed Martin are a multibillion-dollar global corporation. Nevertheless, they were worse off by $70 million after one comma typo in a contract. The error was in an equation used to adjust interest rates over time, meaning Lockheed’s calculations were wrong. And they lost a lot of money.

In this case, then, one misplaced comma ended up costing a company more than the average GDP of Tuvalu. And if that doesn’t make you hire a proofreader, we don’t know what will.

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