On July 22, 1962, at 9:21 AM, NASA launched the Mariner I space probe to great fanfare. Less than five minutes later, the mission was “forcefully aborted.” According to NASA, ““The booster had performed satisfactorily until an unscheduled yaw-lift maneuver was detected by the range safety officer. Faulty application of the guidance commands made steering impossible and were directing the spacecraft towards a crash.” $80 million had been wasted and the potentially historical flight came crashing to the ground, because of a single typo in mathematical code. My name’s…
Voted on by patrons, but couldn’t find more examples
In the world of grammar and writing, there are ample guidelines and rules in varying degrees of pedantry. Most of them don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, except the Oxford comma. Full disclosure, the Oxford comma is one of the hills I will die on, and there’s a dairy in Maine that probably wishes they had a proof-reader as picky as me, after a casual conversation turned into a million dollar lawsuit and changes to the state law. A driver for the dairy company mentioned to a grocery store stockroom employee that he was working 12-16 hours/day. A stockroom worker said, as those of us in retail seem programmed to, that the driver’s check had to be pretty good, what with all the overtime. For those unfamiliar, that is supposed to mean a 50% bonus hourly rate after 40 hrs/wk. Nope, said the driver, he didn’t get overtime. That’s illegal, said the store employee, they can’t do that.
The law in question read that workers don’t get overtime if they are those involved in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of perishable foods.” Milk is perishable, so that means the driver didn’t qualify for overtime. Or did he? Cue the lawyers and your high school English teacher! While it’s not a given, an Oxford comma can change the meaning of a sentence. I realize now I didn’t define OC. There are a number of style guides in the world that people rely on as rules books for professional or formal writing. The Oxford comma has been attributed to Horace Hart, printer and controller of the Oxford University Press from 1893 to 1915, who wrote Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers in 1905 as a style guide for the employees working at the press. The OC is meant to come after the second to last item in a series or list, and can determine how many items there are. For example, the magazine headline “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking her family and her dogs.” If I read it straight through without pauses like that, she sounds like a GD pyschopath, but if I has half-breaths where commas indicate, including before the “and,” you get [re-read]. Much nicer, much more marketable.
The question was that without a comma, ‘packing for shipment or distribution of perishable foods,’ did not mean the same thing as ‘packing for shipment, or distribution of perishable foods.’ Did the law mean packing for shipment-or-distribution? Or packing for shipment, or distribution? Without the comma, the lawyers said, distribution part of the activity of packing for shipment. Around $10mil in unpaid overtime hinged on that tiny speck of ink or pixels.
The state of Maine has a publication “Maine Legislative Drafting Manual” in which the use of the serial comma, also called the Oxford comma, is frowned upon. More’s the pity for the dairy. After court battles and rulings, the dairy company settled. Five drivers were the named plaintiffs and they each received $50,000; others in the class action were awarded overtime pay owed to them over 50 months of work. The law was rewritten using semicolons instead of commas to remove the ambiguity: “the canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distribution of perishable foods.”
This wasn’t the first time nor would it be the last time a comma was at the heart of a legal dispute. In Canada in 2007, two communications companies went to court over what has come to be known as the “million-dollar comma case.” Rogers Communications made an agreement with Bell Aliant to rent some of its equipment. After a couple of years, Bell Aliant realized that they’d made a bad deal, a very bad deal. They believed that they should be getting at least a million dollars more out of the arrangement. When Bell Aliant asked to renegotiate the terms, Rogers refused. It argued that the deal was binding for five full years and could not be changed earlier. So the two companies went to court over the critical clause in the 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 argument all came down to that second comma – the one after the word “terms.” Bell Aliant argued that the second comma meant that the final clause – unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party – applied to the entire agreement, not just to the renewal periods, and that they could terminate the contract before the first five years were up. The court accepted Bell Aliant’s argument and decided in their favor.
The wicket gets sticky because commas have two major functions. The one most writers are familiar with has to do with breathing and rhythm. This is something I’m keenly aware of in my workaday world as a voiceover provider. Commas show readers where to pause and catch their breaths. That’s why I’m a staunch hold-out for two spaces after a full-stops. Comma and one space for short pause, period and two spaces for longer pause. I know it’s outmoded and I’m in the minority, but I will fight you. Commas also have a grammatical function which can change the meaning of a sentence. But the second comma in the Rogers vs. Bell Aliant case was clearly inserted to mark a natural pause. Everyone involved in the case seemed aware that the intention was for the agreement to last for at least the first five years and that Bell Aliant was just trying to find a loophole to get out of what it saw as a bad deal. They were technically correct, the best kind of correct. Rogers Communication naturally appealed the decision and the first verdict was overturned, but for a uniquely Canadian reason. No, nothing to do with good manners, poutine, or Letterkenny, pitter-patter. As with all such legal documents, the original contract was written in both official languages of the country – English and French. The comma at the center of it all was a feature inherent to the English version; it wouldn’t have been and wasn’t used in the French version. Rogers Communications was eventually able to argue that that established the intention of the sentence and they finally won the case.
These two modern examples aren’t the most expensive case of a comma kerfuffle. In 1872, one misplaced comma in a tariff law cost American taxpayers more than $2 million. Adjusted for inflation, carry the one, that’s over $38 million today. After the revolutionary war, the nascent US sought to reorganize itself economically through the establishment of a national budget. The Tariff Act of 1789 stipulated that “duties be laid on goods, wares and merchandise” in order to “support the government.” For over a century, these foreign import tariffs served as the primary source of the US government’s revenue, as much as 95% of the federal budget overall. Income taxes were an on-again, off-again thing until the 20th century.
On June 6, 1872, the Ulysses S Grant administration issued its thirteenth tariff act to reduce rates on many manufactured goods in order to get the economy back after the civil war. But instead of raising money, it cost both the government and the people big time. This tariff act, like all previous acts, included a list of items that were exempt from these 20% import taxes. Importers, always looking for ways to weasle lower fees on their goods, would voraciously scan new tariff acts when they were released in hope of discovering loopholes. “Fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation” were exempt from the tariff. Fruit was taxed but the plants and seeds to grow fruit were not. The Tariff Act of 1870 had established a duty of 20% on oranges, lemons, pineapples, and grapes, and a duty of 10% on limes, bananas, mangoes, coconuts, and essentially every other fruit that was being imported to the US at the time. Fruit was a major import item, and as such, its tariffs constituted a considerable portion of the federal budget.
For reasons lost to time, the 1872 revision had a comma inserted between the words “fruit” and “plants,” giving fruit importers the means of evasion they’d been looking for. It was supposed to have been a hyphen, making fruit plants one word, but that’s not what happened. A pluralizing S was added as well, though we don’t know why or which change caused the other. The exemption now read “Fruits, plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.” Initially, the Secretary of the Treasury rejected claims for exemption, and even refund, from importers on the grounds that the grammatical error was “clearly intended to read otherwise.” Importers, however, dug in their heels and took the matter to court, repeatedly. It soon became clear that the Secretary’s hand-waving brush-off wouldn’t hold up in the court. In December 1874, two years after the typo, the US government declared that, under the phrasing of the act, fruits were free. It was their own document and they had to uphold it. Duties that had been paid while the cases were being adjudicated were refunded, to the tune of $2 million or 1.3% of the government’s total tariff income in 1875 and 0.65% of that year’s entire federal budget. Today, that would be billions of dollars, all over a comma and some fruit.
Typos can cause a world of problems on the printed page, as in the 2010 cookbook The Pasta Bible, where one recipe called for salt and “freshly-ground black people,” forcing the publisher to destroy 7k copies in their warehouse, though the book was already out in the world. Speaking of Bibles, when a book is printed as often and in as many versions and translations as the Christian bible, there are bound to be slip-ups, snafus, solecisms, and stumbles. The best-known example is probably The Wicked Bible. In 1631, King Charles I ordered 1,000 Bibles from an English printer named Robert Barker. It was only after the Bibles were delivered did anyone notice a small but significant mistake: The word “not” had been left out of the Seventh Commandment, so that it now read “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Don’t mind it I do! King Charles was not amused and ordered the Bibles recalled and destroyed, took away Barker’s license to print Bibles and fined him 300 pounds, which is harder to translate to modern money, but was more than enough to put Barker was out of business. Not everyone who had a wicked bible, or sinner’s bible as it was also called, gave theirs up, and there are still about a dozen copies we know of today. One copy is in Australia and the rest are split between Britain and the US. Most are in museum collections, but you can sometimes catch a private collector selling theirs. They usually go for between $50-100k, which to me seems low.
Other notorious Bible printing mistakes include:
The “Fool Bible,” whose printer was fined 3,000 pounds for accidentally leaving the word “not” out of psalm 14:1 and printing instead, “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God;”
The “Judas Bible,” first printed in 1608, where some of Jesus’s dialogue was attributed to Judas;
The “Sin On” Bible from 1716, which printed John 8:11 as “Go, and sin on more;” (if you insist)
The “Denial Bible” from 1792 in which Phillip, not Peter, denies Jesus in Luke 22:34. That’s apparently an important plot point, but as the daughter who got all the other kids in the family out of Sunday school and catechism, I’ll take their word for it;
But you’ve gotta love when things get meta, such as in the “Printers Bible,” published in 1702, where, instead of saying “princes have persecuted me without a cause,” it says that “printers” have persecuted me without a cause.” They’re probably feeling a little persecuted themselves.
Typos can cost a lot of money, and sometimes they’re even *on the money. In 2008, the national mint of Chile misspelled the name of its own country on a series of 50-peso coins. More than 1.5 million coins bearing the name “CHIIE” instead of “CHILE” were released into circulation, and incredibly, the spelling error was only formally reported in late 2009. As embarrassing as the mistake was, the coins weren’t pulled from circulation and quickly became collectors’ items, though the head of the mint got sacked because it did the government’s image no favors.
In 2013, folks in Texas got a sweet deal when a misprint in a Macy’s mailer advertised a $1500 necklace for just $47. The necklace was supposed to be on sale for $497. The necklace quickly sold out before the typo was caught and Macy’s was able to hang correction signs in the stores. We don’t know the exact financial damage here because Macy’s has never disclosed just how many people got that necklace for 96.87% off. Even the discounts are bigger in Texas.
In 2006, Alitalia Airlines offered business class flights from Toronto to Cyprus for $39. This Canada to the Mediterranean flight was supposed to cost $3,900. Around 2,000 travelers took advantage of the rate before the mistake could be corrected. The airline tried to cancel the tickets, but buyers weren’t having it. They’d purchased the tickets fair and square. To protect its reputation, Alitalia decided to cut its losses and allow the budget ticket holders to fly, at a lost, direct and reputational, of around $7.2 million.
Up in the Big Apple, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had to pull $250,000 worth of subway maps after they were printed with the wrong fares. Those 80,000 MTA maps that listed the pay-per-ride price minimum as $4.50 when it should have read $5. This doesn’t sound like much but not only does the sheer volume of business mean that that $.50 difference adds up big and it adds up fast, the MTA printed the new maps to alert subway riders to fare hikes.
If you’re in a smaller city, say Roswell, NM, you’ll probably need a car, but you won’t be able to get one from Roswell Honda after a simple, tried & true direct-mail promotion went badly awry for reasons that weren’t even the dealer’s fault. In 2005, the 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 printed off 50,000 tickets, all of them grand prize winners, an error that somehow no one noticed. 20,000 tickets ended up being delivered, meaning they had 20,000 disappointed potential customers on their hands and major damage to their reputation after the story hit the news, first locally, then nationally. The dealer decided to give a $5 Walmart gift card consolation “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.
Back in the 80’s when Yellow Pages were *the place people would turn to find goods and services, Gloria Quinan, owner of Banner Travel Agency in California learned first-hand what happens when someone hits the wrong key and nobody notices. Banner Travel specialized in “exotic travel.” The Pacific Bell phone company printed it as “erotic travel” instead. “We offer exotic travel, like tours up the Amazon, but nothing erotic,” said Quinan. Her older clientele, which was most of her business, stopped calling. That didn’t mean the phone didn’t ring. Oh, it rang, but what people were asking for, Quinan did *not offer. Her attorney filed a $10 million-dollar lawsuit on her behalf claiming that she lost 80% of her clientele because of the mistake. Normally, typo-based lawsuits fail, but Quinan eventually won her lawsuit based on the “mental anguish” and “physical distress” the typo caused.
No company is typo-proof, even if they’ve been around for generations. Such is the sad tale of Taylor & Sons, a 124-year-old, family-owned engineering business in Britain that was killed by an extra “s,” costing 250 employees lost their jobs. In 2015, officials at Companies House in Cardiff, the United Kingdom’s registrar of companies, announced that the company Taylor & Son, singular, was failing. However, someone added an “s” and announced the liquidation of Taylor & Sons, plural, instead. Although the mistake was quickly corrected within a few days, the hit to Taylor & Sons’ reputation proved fatal. To make matters worse, the company’s managing director was on vacation at the time, causing clients and creditors to believe he had fled the country as his company collapsed. In less than three weeks, Taylor & Sons lost the majority of its clients, and 3,000 of its suppliers canceled their contracts, forcing the company into bankruptcy two months later. Taylor and Sons sued the Companies House. The British High Court later ruled that the government registrar was directly responsible for the collapse of the company and awarded the plaintiffs 8.8 million GBP (approximately $17 million in U.S. dollars) lawsuit followed, with the tab going to British taxpayers since the Companies House was a government entity.
Not every typo results in a lose-lose; one person’s loss can be another person’ gain. An eBay user posted an auction for his rare bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, brewed in 1852 and perfectly preserved. The museum-quality artifact of historical hooch should have fetched a small fortune from enthusiasts and it might well have if he’d spelled name correctly. “Allsopp’s” is spelled with 2 Ps, but the seller only used one. When enthusiasts searched for the name spelled correctly, it didn’t come up. But one lucky or clever soul found the out-of-the-way listing and won against a single other bidder, buying the bottle for $304. The auction only started at $299 asking price. Eight weeks later, the lucky buyer listed the same bottle on eBay, spelled correctly, and raking in half-a-million dollars. Before you get too excited about scavenging ebay with common misspellings to try to win your fortune, this was more than a decade ago and search technology has improved.
Speaking of making money on searches, Google could be making as much as half-a-Billion dollars, *annually, from the registered owners of website addresses that are spelling *almost like the sites people are trying to reach. Known as “typosquatting,” Harvard University researchers Tyler Moore and Benjamin Edelman estimate that Google could be making millions from the practice, because its network of display ads — from which it receives a cut of the profits — run on the typo’d sites. They used a list of common spelling mistakes to generate another list of possible typo domains for the 3,264 most popular “.com” websites, as determined by Alexa.com rankings. With help from software, the researchers crawled 285,000 of some 900,000 “misspelled” sites to estimate what revenue the domains are generating.
Scale up those results, and you’re looking at some serious coin: Expanding to the top 100,000 sites, retaining the 0.7% estimated ratio of typosquatting site, we estimate that typo domains collectively receive at least 68.2 million daily visitors. If these typo domains were treated as a single website, that site would be ranked by Alexa as the 10th most popular website in the world. It would be more popular, in unique daily visitors, than twitter.com, myspace.com, or amazon.com! The researchers estimate that almost 60 percent of these sites have ads supplied by Google. With some back-of-the-envelope math, that amounts to $497 million per year in revenue. It’s Google’s policy to remove ads from these “misspelled” domains if the owner of the original site complains.
Multiple theories emerged surrounding the reasons behind the craft’s failure, largely stemming from a bevy of reports produced in the aftermath (some official, and others merely speculation). But the most commonly cited explanation, directly from Mariner I’s Post-Flight Review Board, is that a lone “dropped hyphen or overbar” in the computer code instructions incited the flight’s demise. In his 1968 book The Promise of Space, Arthur C. Clarke memorialized the typo as “the most expensive hyphen in history.” We’ll save the $125 mil lost on the failure to do metric conversions for another day.