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 of dollars? Strap in, then, and let us run you through five of the most expensive comma typos in history.
1. James Joyce’s Unwanted Commas ($410,000)
James Joyce’s novel Ulysses was famous for its experimental style, including deliberate errors such as passages of unpunctuated text. The problem is that those faced with transcribing his manuscripts sometimes ‘corrected’ Joyce’s errors. In fact, one volunteer editor added hundreds of commas to a 40-page passage that was meant to be entirely comma free!
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 USD, so you can see why hiring a good editor is worth the money!
2. Rogers Communications Inc. vs. Bell Aliant ($1,000,000)
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, whereas Rogers Communications argued it only applied if the contract was renewed after this initial period.
In the end, they resolved the comma issue by checking the French version of the contract, which thankfully was free from controversial punctuation.
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3. An Oxford Comma in Maine ($6,840,000)
Leaving an Oxford comma (i.e. a comma before the final item in a list) out of a contract cost a dairy company in Maine 5 million USD. This came after a dispute with its own drivers about overtime.
In particular, a clause in Maine’s overtime law about exemptions from overtime included the phrase ‘packing for shipment or distribution of’. The company said that ‘distribution’ was meant to be a separate item in this list. However, without a handy 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 ($52,500,000)
Rather than a missing comma, an unwanted comma in US Tariff Act of 1872 cost the US Government 2 million USD (around 38.4 million USD 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 at the time, importers took advantage of this loophole until it was closed two years later. This meant that US taxpayers lost out on revenue, but they presumably gained in access to affordable bananas.
5. Lockheed Martin vs. Inflation ($95,690,000)
Lockheed Martin are a multibillion-dollar global corporation. Nevertheless, they were worse off by 70 million USD after one comma typo in a contract.
The typo occurred in an equation used to adjust interest rates over time. This meant Lockheed’s calculations didn’t reflect the actual inflation rate, costing the company tens of millions of dollars. And if that isn’t enough to make you look for comma typos in your own writing, we don’t know what is.