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Some of the Most Expensive Grammar Mistakes Ever Made


Grammar. Many of us have memories of the tortuous time during grade school when we were taught proper grammar. I can still smell the chalk in the air as I walked up to the blackboard to attempt to correctly place the punctuation in the sentence so beautifully written by my teacher. (Do grade school teachers take calligraphy class or something because all of my teachers had amazing handwriting?) We learned to diagram a sentence, place a comma properly, use a semicolon and colon, and the importance of proper spelling. I still have anxiety related to spelling tests on Friday mornings.

Social media and texting have standardized an accepted level of improper grammar. We write in shortened, incomplete sentences and ignore all punctuation, except for the overuse of the exclamation point. We do this because the stakes are low. Does it really matter that my verb and subject did not agree? Who cares if I forgot a comma or a period? Through texting and social media, we have little to lose, except to tick off the grammar police out there. But there are times when grammar is extremely important, and the stakes are very high. Money and jobs are lost. Reputations destroyed. The world turned upside down. Below are some of the most expensive and embarrassing grammar mistakes ever made, which will make all our old grammar teachers spin in their graves.

The importance of a comma

In 1872 the United States was struggling to recover financially from the Civil War. President Ulysses S. Grant issued a series of tariffs to help raise money and protect products and commodities produced in the United States. The Tariff Act of 1872 stated, Articles exempt from duty on or after August 1, 1982. Fruit, plants tropical and semitropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation… The error is the comma placed between fruit and plants. It was supposed to be a hyphen, fruit-plants, meaning plants that produce fruit would be exempt, but growers saw this as stating that fruit and plants were exempt from taxation. At first, the Secretary of the Treasury, William Richardson, stated that the intent was for a hyphen, and he would still charge the tax. Importers sued and eventually forced Richardson to change his mind in 1874, making fruit free to import into the United States. As part of this the department issued refunds for the previous two years, adding up to $2 million or $40 million today adjusted for inflation. Congress eventually passed a new tariff in 1874 correcting the costly comma.

In 2005, Canadian companies Rogers Communications and Bell Aliant disagreed over a potential half a million-dollar comma that would have allowed Bell Aliant to terminate a contract early. The contract read, 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. The offending comma is the one before "unless." Bell Aliant argued that this meant that they could terminate during the initial five-year contract, while Rogers argued that they could only terminate the contract after the first five years. The companies sued in court over the issue. They submitted both the English and French translations of the contract to the court. (Canada has two official languages – English and French) The French copy did not have the comma, and the court ruled that the companies follow that edition as its intention was clear.

For lovers of the Oxford Comma

In 2014, drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy in Maine sued for overtime pay owed them due to their interpretation of a state law. The law read, 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 where exempt from overtime pay. The drivers argued that the lack of a comma after shipment meant that the it was the packing of the goods not the distribution of the goods that was exempt. Drivers had no responsibility in the packaging process, and therefore, should be eligible for overtime pay. In other words, the prepositional phrase for shipment or distribution of was modifying packing rather than packing and distribution being two separate activities, which a simple Oxford comma would have clarified. In 2018, the courts awarded a $5 million settlement to be shared between 120 drivers.

The importance of proofreading

In 2008, Chile misspelled its own name on its 50 peso coin. The coin should have read, Republica De Chile, but instead read, Republica De Chiie. The error was not caught until 2009. The general manager of the Chilean mint lost his job over the typo. The coins are now considered a collector's item, and Chile has no plans to remove the coins from circulation.

In 1988, the Yellow pages took an order for an ad from the Banner Travel Agency. The ad was supposed to highlight the company's exotic travel packages, but instead it was printed erotic travel packages. Banner claims to have lost 80% of its customers – mainly elderly folks. Banner's owner eventually sued the Yellow Pages for $10 million.

In 2006, Alitalia Airlines posted a flight from Toronto to Cyprus for $39 instead of $3,900. Two thousand people booked a flight before the error was found costing the airline over $7 million in losses.

In 1631, Royal Printers lost their printing license and fined £300 when they published their Bible with a small typo. They printed the seventh commandment incorrectly: Thou shalt commit adultery. The printers had made 1,000 copies before the error was discovered. King Charles I called the offending book the Sinner's Bible or Wicked Bible and ordered them to be burned. There are ten copies still in existence.

In 1962, the Mariner I, a satellite that was supposed to be sent to Venus, had to be destroyed a few minutes after take off when it began to act erratically and was on a path to crash in a populated area. The result was a $80 million fireworks show. The cause was a simple missing hyphen in its code.

Sometimes an error takes years to find. The New York Times ran a typo for 102 years. In 1898, an employee was adjusting the type for the next day's run. The Times has a running tally of each paper it prints. On February 7, 1898 that count was at 14,499. On February 8, 1898, the count was at 15,000. A jump by 500 instead of 1. It was not until 1999 that a young news assistant who was responsible for updating the count each day decided to check the accuracy and found the mistake, which would officially be corrected on January 1, 2000, when the Times rolled back its tally by 500.

A small typo can lead to your name having a new meaning. Juan Pablo Davila did just that in 1994, when online stock trading was new. Davila worked for a government-owned copper company and oversaw the company's stock portfolio. He made a typo in one of his spreadsheets and bought stock that he was wanting to sell. His initial blunder cost the company $30 million. He attempted to recover the losses and by the end of the day had lost $175 million. Over the next six months he attempted to correct his mistake losing the company $206 million. Davila lost his job, spent three years in jail, and his name was made into a verb, davilar, meaning to royally botch something up.

Many of these mistakes mentioned are because of carelessness and/or laziness. As writers, we need to take care in how we present our work. Proofreading is a key component to any writing project and sometimes carelessness can have large repercussions. Jane Goodall is a well-known scientist, and her work with the Gorillas of Africa are famous and a central part of our understanding of these animals. In 2012, her book, Seeds of Hope, reporters from the Washington Post realized many sections were plagiarized. Dr. Goodall admitted that there were errors in her notetaking, and that working on a tight schedule led to the unattributed sections. The book was delayed for a year, while Goodall and her editors corrected the errors. The famous historian Steven Ambrose was also accused of plagiarizing sections of dozens of his books from the 1970s to 1990s. He claimed shotty notetaking and carelessness was at fault. Many of his contemporaries stated that one or two books they could forgive for bad note taking, but dozens of books over three decades were blatant. The result is the same: a blemish on both of their careers for carelessness.

In remembrance of all of our grade school language teachers: proofread, proofread, proofread, and hiring a good editor is also not a bad idea.

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