Commas save lives (and money)

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a BBC blog post on the value of commas…

I have a copy editor who saves me from grammatical embarrassment when it comes to commas.

Frankly, I am sloppy with them. But I’m interested in improving. Perhaps that’s what drew my attention to a BBC story headlined “The commas that cost companies millions.” (Thanks to my friend Greg for forwarding it to me. I only hope his forwarding of the link was not an editorial comment on my punctuation.)

The story recounts a number of legal sagas in which missing or misplaced commas led to large settlements. My favourite is the tale of the 1872 American tariff law that cost taxpayers nearly $2m (the equivalent of $40m today). As  originally drafted in 1870 it allowed “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” to be exempt from import tariffs.

As the BBC story put it,

For an unknown reason, when revised two years later, a stray comma sneaked in between “fruit” and “plants”. Suddenly all tropical and semi-tropical fruits could be imported without any charge.

Whenever I hear about comma errors, my mind immdiately goes to a poster about grandma (shown at the top of this post.) For a number of years, I volunteered as a debate coach at my local high school. The room I worked out of had this poster on the wall, with the unforgettable tagline: “Commas save lives.”