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Published: Sep 23, 2016 7 min read
punctuation error
Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein for Money

September 24 is officially National Punctuation Day, and we're sure that you're planning to celebrate by wearing "period" costumes and tossing back a few exclamation "pints." (If there's anything funnier than bad puns, it's bad puns about punctuation! Note the proper use of parentheses here, by the way, as well as an unnecessary exclamation point.)

Among the officially recommended ways to enjoy National Punctuation Day, according to the founder of this made-up holiday, are suggestions such as the following:

• Sleep late.
• Take a long shower or bath.
• Read a newspaper and circle all of the punctuation errors you find (or think you find, but aren’t sure) with a red pen.
• Visit a bookstore and purchase a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
• Write an error-free letter to a friend.

Those sounds like nice ideas. In addition, you might sit back and thank goodness none of your punctuation mistakes cost you big money (we hope). We're commemorating the big day by highlighting three instances when curious punctuation decisions had huge financial implications.

The Misplaced Comma That Cost Taxpayers Millions

In 1872, while Ulysses S. Grant was president, the federal government passed a new tariff act. As Priceonomics points out, a seemingly tiny punctuation error in the law wound up costing the government about $2 million—worth over $40 million in today's dollars, after adjusting for inflation.

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A previously passed tariff act had specified that "fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation" were exempt from the import tariff, and the 1872 version was supposed to retain this same exclusion. The problem was that a comma was mysteriously inserted into the phrase, so that the exemption applied to "fruit, plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation."

At the time, imported oranges, lemons, bananas, pineapples, grapes, coconuts, and other fruits were subject to duties of 10% to 20%. But the insertion of the comma between "fruit" and "plants" indicated that fruits were now on the exempt list.

William Richardson, Secretary of the Treasury, argued that the comma was intended to be a hyphen, so that the exemption applied to "fruit-plants" and not "fruit" and "plants." Nonetheless, two years after the mistake, the government agreed that the tax wouldn't apply to imported fruit, and even refunded the duties that had been paid since 1872. As a result, fruit importers collectively received $2 million—over $40 million in today's dollars—back from the government.

The Comma That Canceled a $1 Million Contract

Another comma proved costly in a contract dispute between a cable TV provider and a phone company in Canada in 2006. As the New York Times reported, the contract was 14 pages long, but the case came down to the use of a single comma—and what it truly meant.

The controversial part of the contract read:

The Bell Aliant phone company argued that the second comma in the sentence, in between "terms" and "unless," basically allowed it to cancel its contract with the cable provider, Rogers Communications, at any time. Rogers' understanding of the agreement differed—their thinking was that Bell Aliant needed to cancel before the start of the last year of the five-year contract.

"The regulator concluded that the second comma meant that the part of the sentence describing the one-year notice for cancellation applied to both the five-year term as well as its renewal," the Times explained. "Therefore, the regulator found, the phone company could escape the contract after as little as one year."

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The ruling wound up costing the cable provider $1 million in Canadian dollars (about $900,000 at the time in U.S. dollars) because it allowed the phone company to get out of the contractual agreement.

$300,000+ to Add Back Intended Punctuation Mistakes

James Joyce's Ulysses is widely regarded as one of the greatest, most influential novels of all time. It's also a book that people tend to buy but never read, at least not in its entirety.

Joyce's curious punctuation decisions are one of the reasons people find it hard to get through the book: The final 69 pages consist of only eight sentences, and they completely lack punctuation, researchers have noted.

What's especially confusing is that, depending on which edition of the book you have, the punctuation decisions may not have been made by Joyce but one of the volunteers who transcribed the author's handwritten draft into a typed copy. "For example, in a lengthy unpunctuated passage in the episode titled 'Eumaeus,' hundreds of commas that the author never intended were added by one of the many volunteers who transcribed Joyce's crimped handwriting to the typed pages," the New York Times reported in 1984.

It was in that year that a new edition of Ulysses was published that, with the help of a $300,000 grant, corrected some 5,000 errors in earlier editions in order to restore Joyce's original vision. In many cases, the "corrections" resulted in technically incorrect grammar and punctuation. But that was what James intended. When you're a genius like Joyce, you see, you're right even when you're wrong.