Costly and Fatal Commas of Blasphemy

The first three items are excerpted and amended from the original at canongate. The fourth item is from my own blog.

    Czarina Maria Fyodorovna once saved the life of a man by transposing a single comma in a warrant signed by her husband, Alexander III. On the bottom of the warrant the czar had written: `Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia. ‘ The czarina changed the punctuation so that her husband’s instructions read: ` Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia. ‘ The man was set free.
    In several editions of the King James Bible, Luke 23:32 is changed entirely by the absence of a comma. In the passage that describes the other men crucified with Christ, the erroneous editions read: ` And there were also two other malefactors. ‘ That clearly includes Christ as a malefactor. Instead of counting Christ as a malefactor, the passage should read: ` And there were also two other, malefactors.
    The US government lost over a million dollars through the slip of a comma. In the tariff act of June 1872, a list of duty-free items included: ` Fruit plants, tropical and semitropical ‘. A government clerk accidentally altered the line to read: ` Fruit, plants tropical and semitropical ‘. Importers successfully contended that the passage, as written, exempted all tropical and semitropical plants from duty fees. This cost the US a fortune until May 1874, when the passage was amended.
    In August 2006, Rogers Communications was to lose C$2,130,000 because of a misplaced comma in a contract. Yes, the world’s most expensive comma and you should all read the column in my previous blog post. The whole thing comes down to this: Page 7 of the contract states the agreement: “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.” Look at the comma in red — I’ve highlighted the previous word to make it easy to find. Without the comma it’s a five-year contract which renews for successive 5-year terms. With the comma, it says the contract can be terminated with one year notice regardless of the terms. This is standard contract verbiage. The judge has ruled that the contract is quite clear and is allowing it to be terminated.

A comma is important. Really. And even if you don’t like these anecdotes, you must realize it’s important to express yourself clearly and accurately. The comma will help.

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