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Think Typos Won't Cost You Money? Think Again!

Back when Yellow Pages were a common source for finding phone numbers, Gloria Quinan, owner of Banner Travel Agency in Sonoma, California learned first-hand the cost of a typo. Instead of advertising her travel agency as one that specializes in exotic travel, the Pacific Bell phone company printed an "r" in place of the "x", advertising "erotic travel" instead. We offer exotic travel, like tours up the Amazon, but nothing erotic, said Quinan, in this press release from 1988. Her attorney, George Altenberg, filed a $10 million-dollar lawsuit on her behalf claiming that she lost 80% of her clientele because of the mistake. Her older clients, which was most of her business, want to avoid her now, he stated.

Quinan's staff ended up quitting because of the strain of fielding calls from customers seeking business the agency didn't offer. Quinan eventually won her lawsuit based on the "mental anguish" and "physical distress" the typo caused.

This story isn't the only example of how typos can cost a business or brand a lot of money. Here are a few more that will help convince you that the cost of an editor or proofreader isn't nearly as bad as the cost of a ruined reputation or lawsuit based on faulty comma placement.

Typos can cost more than you realize, including damage to your reputation and expensive lawsuits. In the scheme of things, an editor is far less expensive.
Typos can cost more than you realize, including damage to your reputation and expensive lawsuits. In the scheme of things, an editor is far less expensive. Photo by Moose Photos from Pexels.

"The most expensive hyphen in history"

In his nonfiction work discussing the development of astronautics, The Promise of Space, legendary Science Fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke noted that NASA's Mariner 1, a Venus-bound spacecraft launched in 1962, was wrecked by the most expensive hyphen in history.

The vessel was an $18 million-dollar project and was built during America's space race against the Soviet Union. As the first planetary mission initiated by NASA, it fell short of its lofty goals by exploding 4 minutes and 53 seconds after launch due to missing punctuation in the guidance system code. Some accounts claim the missing punctuation was a decimal while others claim it was a hyphen or a mathematical symbol called an overbar. The summation of all accounts, however, was a costly mistake that will likely always be an embarrassment for the people (or person) responsible for correctly transcribing the code.

The comma that cost $2.13 million Canadian dollars

This New York Times article begins its summary of the Rogers Communications vs. Aliant dispute with the following quote: If there is a moral to the story about a contract dispute between Canadian companies, this is it: Pay attention in grammar class.

The 14-page contract in question was between Canada's largest cable television provider (Rogers) and a telephone company leasing its utility poles (Bell Aliant). The sentence that became a $2.13 million Canadian dollar mistake was:

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.

New York Times

According to Rogers Communications spokesperson, the phone company erred in canceling a contract between the two parties after one year. Rogers insisted that the contract should have run for five years and renew for another five years, unless cancelled by Aliant before the final 12 months. The telecommunications regulator, however, ruled that Bell Aliant was within contractual bounds to cancel the contract after one year based on the comma before "unless". According to the New York Times, The comma in question indicated that the contingency only applied to one part of the contract (termination of the contract at any time), but not the other (the contract being valid for 5 years).

A publicity stunt gone wrong

This NBC News article details the typo mistake in a direct mail marketing campaign that cost a Roswell, New Mexico Honda car dealership $250,000. And it wasn't even their mistake!

In 2005, the car dealership decided to give away $1,000 as a grand prize via scratch-off tickets sent to potential car buyers. However, the marketing company they hired to launch the campaign and handle the tickets printed off 50,000 grand prize tickets, and whoever was proofreading for them failed to catch it. Twenty thousand of those tickets ended up being delivered. The result was a $20 million dollar payout that the car dealership couldn't cover.

With 20,000 disappointed potential customers and a big hit to its reputation, the dealer decided to give a $5 Walmart gift card as a "grand prize" instead. While $100,000 spent at Walmart is better than losing $20 million, the loss in brand reputation caused unknown damages—all because someone didn't proofread.

The botched stock trade for less than a penny

This CBS News article covers the story of a typo made by a stock trader with Mizuho Securities Co. that shook the Tokyo Stock Exchange and cost one of Japan's most prestigious securities companies at least $225 million on a stock trade.

Citing "human error," the company's 2005 mistake happened when one of their traders tried to sell 1 share of a new job recruiting company, J-Com, for 610,000 yen ($5,041 in U.S. dollars). However, when he submitted the trade, he placed it for 610,000 shares for 1 yen (less than 1 cent in U.S. dollars).

As a result of the faulty order, Morgan Stanley, an American multinational investment bank, obtained a 31.2 percent stake in J-Com before the Tokyo Stock Exchange suspended trading of J-Com to mitigate instability in its markets.

The "s" that cost $17 million dollars

This BBC News article tells the woeful tale of Taylor & Sons, a 124-year-old, family-owned engineering business that went belly up thanks to the letter "s". In the process, 250 employees lost their jobs, and it all happened within the span of a few months.

In 2015, officials at Companies House in Cardiff, the United Kingdom's registrar of companies, were meant to announce that a company called Taylor & Son was failing. However, someone added an "s" where there shouldn't be one, and announced the liquidation of Taylor & Sons instead.

Although the mistake was quickly corrected within a few days, the hit to Taylor & Sons' reputation proved fatal. A successful 8.8 million-pound (approximately $17 million in U.S. dollars) lawsuit followed, with the tab going to British taxpayers since the Companies House was a government entity. It was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The "p" that was worth $503,000 dollars

This article in the Telegraph reveals the sad story of the typo that kept an unvigilant eBay seller from making a small fortune (almost $503,000 dollars).

After finding a rare, unopened bottle of Allsopp's Artic Ale in the garage of a house in Gobowen, Shropshire, the seller announced that there would be an auction of the artifact that was perfectly preserved and brewed in 1852. However, when listing the bottle, the seller accidentally wrote "Allsop's", attracting only two bids and a final $304 sale.

The buyer who bought it for $304 relisted it with the correct spelling and attracted 157 bids with a final selling price of $503,300.

The comma that cost the U.S. government $40 million dollars

This Business Insider article shows how important a comma can be when making legislation related to tariffs.

In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant's administration issued the 13th Tariff Act instating a 20% tax on foreign imports, minus a few exceptions. The Act was meant to boost the U.S. economy, which was still reeling from the cost of the Civil War.

Here is an image from the Act of the exceptions that were included:

Tariff Acts Passed by the Congress of the United States from 1789 to 1897
Tariff Acts Passed by the Congress of the United States from 1789 to 1897.

The problem with this list of exceptions was that a comma was used between "fruit" and "plants" instead of the intended hyphen. In other words, the exception should have read "Fruit-Plants," meaning that which would be used for propagation. Since the comma implied that fruit and plants were exceptions, importers used the typo to request a refund from the U.S. Government of approximately $2 million paid in duties—roughly equivalent to $40 million dollars today.

According to the article:

A previous act from 1870, however, placed a 20% tax on oranges, lemons, pineapples, and grapes and a 10% tax on limes, bananas, plantains, shaddocks (also known as pomelos), mangoes, and coconuts… Initially, the secretary of the Treasury, then William Richardson, said the comma was intended to be a hyphen, making the line "fruit-plants tropical and semi-tropical." The hyphen makes "fruit-plants" a compound noun. The tax stayed.

Soon, importers began suing over Richardson's decision to tax tropical and semitropical fruits…As a result, in December 1874, Richardson changed his mind, making all fruit free to import. He even started issuing refunds—to the tune of about $2 million, or $40 million adjusted for inflation.

Christina Sterbenz, Business Insider

Editors are inexpensive—in the scheme of things

So what's the moral of these stories? It's that editors and proofreaders are inexpensive in the scheme of things. Whether it's for an email campaign or a law that's being passed, hiring a professional editor is far less costly than typo mistakes that can occur and result in a loss in reputation, the dissolution of a company, or millions of dollars in lawsuits initiated because someone didn't check their grammar.

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