Claim: A misplaced comma deprived the U.S. government of an estimated
Origins: In these days of e-mail, Twitter posts, and cell phone text messages, the application of proper punctuation is sometimes viewed as a dying art. Yet as archaic as that practice may sometimes seem, it remains true that in more formal written communications the addition, deletion, or movement of as little as one punctuation mark can change meanings radically and even sometimes expensively.
While some tales about errant commas are naught but invention (such as the yarn about the reply to a jewelry-seeking wife’s inquiry in which the meaning of the response was altered from the negative to the affirmative by the removal of one), it is true
that a memorable punctuation error once deprived the U.S. government of an estimated
Contained in the U.S. tariff act of
The directive was meant to exempt “Fruit plants, tropical and
however, was mysteriously migrated one word to the left during the copying process, thereby rendering the sentence as: “Fruit, plants tropical and
Importers of oranges and lemons and the like were quick to seize upon the misplacement and use it to their advantage. They contended that under the wording of the act, all tropical and
The Treasury initially ruled against this interpretation, but that body later reversed itself and sided with the fruit importers. Most of the monies collected as duty on the import of tropical and
Subsequent tariff acts put the comma back to where it should have been all along, thus closing that lucrative loophole.
Barbara “fruit unlooped” Mikkelson
Last updated: 26 May 2015
Hix, John. Strange As It Seems. New York: Sears Publishing Company, 1931 (p. 37). The New York Times. “Forty-Third Congress.” 21 February 1874 (p. 37).