Many of us don’t pay too much attention to the humble comma when we write. A missing or a misplaced comma isn’t always the end of the world to us. 

But incorrect punctuation can be expensive. Did you know the US government once lost about $2 million (equivalent to $40 million today) only because of a misplaced comma?

Here’s what happened. In 1872, the US government passed a new tariff act that said the following were exempt from import tariffs: “fruit, plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation”.

Seems fine, right? Not really.

The trouble is it was supposed to say “fruit plants” and not “fruit, plants”. The comma between “fruit” and “plants” made a world of difference: it meant that all fruit could be imported for free.

It took hours of debate in the US Congress before the error was fixed two years later! Of course, by then the government had already lost huge amounts of money.

This is a classic example of the importance of editing in general and correct punctuation in particular. One misplaced punctuation mark, as you saw, can completely change the meaning of a sentence and cause chaos! 

Most people believe copy errors are a thing of the past in a world of proofreading apps and in-built spelling and grammar checkers in our word processing software. But copy errors can slip into your writing despite these tools. 

It’s been happening for hundreds of years. When the printing press was invented in the 15th century, printers began hiring scholars and leading men of letters to copy edit documents after setting. But there were still proofing errors aplenty. 

The encyclopedia Britannica says lawsuits between printers and authors, errata sheets and authors’ complaints at not seeing proof in printed books were all common through the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, a 1631 version of the Bible is infamous for featuring an incorrect commandment due to a typo! 

In an extreme case of professional editors making a huge copy error, a typo created a new word in the dictionary for a few years! The word “dord” doesn’t exist in the English language, but it was accidentally included in the 1934 edition of  Webster's New International Dictionary. An editor only noticed the error in 1939, and it wasn’t until 1947 that the incorrect entry was removed from all editions of the dictionary! 

Newspapers usually employ dedicated proofreaders and fact-checkers, but errors still creep in. A 2007 study by the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication spotted 2,615 factual errors in 1,220 stories.

Errors in news reports can have serious consequences, particularly in the digital age where information travels quickly through social media and search. Once an erroneous article reaches a large digital audience, it is tough to correct it.

Let’s look at examples of typos that caused huge problems.

In December 2005, a trader at Japan’s Mizuho Securities mistakenly offered to sell 610,000 shares of employment agency J-Com Co. for one yen each. The problem was  J-Com Co.’s shares were actually priced at 610,000 yen per share. The firm blamed it on a typing error. The Tokyo Stock Exchange refused to reverse the erroneous order. The mistake caused Mizuho Securities to lose $225 million on the trade.

In 2013, New York City’s Transportation Authority created 160,000 maps and posters that said the new minimum amount for pay-per-ride cards was $4.50. But this was the old minimum amount; the posters were supposed to say the new amount was $5.00. This error led to an estimated loss of $500,000.

So the lesson here is: make sure to check your writing before you submit it. This is more crucial in the workplace where communication skills are highly valued.

Use a dictionary to check for spellings and the appropriate usage of words. Where the dictionary can’t help you, the style sheet can come to your rescue. 

Most organizations and publications have a style sheet. This is a mini-guide to writing for a particular publisher or audience that covers everything from comma placement to spellings. It tells you whether Oxford commas are to be used, whether British or American English is followed, how to format abbreviations, titles, dates, numbers and so on. 

At the end of the day, the ability to copy edit writing comes from practice. Check out Harappa’s Writing Proficiently course and its sections on editing and proofreading. The tips and tricks will help you write clearly, concisely and compellingly. 

Tanvi Khemani is Manager, Curriculum, at Harappa Education. She is a postgraduate in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and enjoys eating street-side chaat and writing fiction.

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