The commas that cost companies millions (2023)

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The commas that cost companies millions (1)

For most people, a stray comma isn't the end of the world. But in some cases, the exact placement of a punctuation mark can cost huge sums of money.


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How much can a misplaced comma cost you?

If you're texting a loved one or emailing a co-worker, misplacing a punctuation will cost you a red face and a minor mix-up at worst.

But for some, controversial commas can be a path to the poor house.

A dairy company in Portland, Maine, settled a $5 million lawsuit earlier this year over a missing comma.

(Video) The commas that cost companies millions

Three Oakhurst Dairy truck drivers claimed they owed years of unpaid overtime pay, all because of the way commas were used in overtime laws.

State laws stated that overtime was not payable for employees involved in "canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packaging for shipping or distribution of: 1) agricultural products; 2) meat and fish products; and 3) perishable foods”.

The drivers managed to successfully argue that because there was no comma after "shipping" and before "or distribution," they were owed overtime. If there had been a comma, the law would have expressly barred those who hand out perishable food.

Because there was confusion, the US Court of Appealsdecided in their favour, which benefited about 120 of the company's drivers. David Webbert, the attorney who helped bring the case against the company, told reporters at the time that including a comma in the clause "would have sunk our ship." (He did not respond to BBC interview requests.)

The smallest misstep in underlining a clause in a contract can have huge unintended consequences

The mistake shows that the slightest misstep in underlining a clause in a contract can have huge unintended consequences.

"Puncussion is important," says Ken Adams, author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. But not all punctuation is created equal: contractual minefields aren't littered with semicolons or em dashes (here's one :-) waiting to explode when tripped over.

“It comes down to commas,” says Adams. "They matter, and how exactly depends on the context."

Deliver definition

Commas in contracts connect separate clauses in a non-definitive way, leaving their interpretation open to interpretation. While a full stop is literally that -- a full and complete stop of one thought or sentence, and the signal of the beginning of another -- commas occupy a linguistic middle ground, and one that's often confused. "Commas are a proxy for confusion about which part of a sentence relates to what," Adams explains.

Commas occupy a linguistic middle ground, and one that is often confused

The English language is fluid, evolving and highly subjective. Arguments have been fought over the value of the so-calledOxford come's(an optional comma before the word "and" or "or" at the end of a list). There may be good arguments on both sides of the debate, but this won't work for the law because there has to be a definitive answer: yes or no. In high-stakes legal agreements, the way commas are used is critical to their meaning. And in the case of Oakhurst Dairy to its delivery men, the Oxford comma is believed to have favored the meaning of the latter.

But just because you want to say something doesn't mean a court will agree with you, says Jeff Nobles, a Texas-based career attorney who was involved in an insurance case that depended in part on the punctuation of a contract.

According to Nobles, most US courts will say that it doesn't really matter what the parties subjectively intended; it is the objective intent in the written terms of their contract. "Pupunctuation sometimes changes the meaning of a sentence," he says.

Nobles represented an insurance company in a Texas Supreme Court case concerning insurance coverage for an employee who died on the job.

Nobles successfully argued that punctuation mattered for a contractual indemnity provision when the company tried to activate coverage under its umbrella insurance policy after a subcontractor's employee died on the job. It set a precedent in the state's legal system, he believes.

He says US courts have become more and more textual - "they've looked more and more at the words on the paper rather than the testimonies of the people who used those words on the paper."

Yet commas have been raging for more than a century.

"An expensive comma"

In 1872, a U.S. tariff law containing an unwanted comma cost taxpayers nearly $2 million (the equivalent of $40 million today). The United States Tariff Act, as originally enacted in 1870, allowed "fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for propagation or cultivation" to be exempt from import tariffs.

For some unknown reason, when it was revised two years later, a stray comma snuck in between "fruit" and "plants". Suddenly all tropical and semi-tropical fruits could be imported for free.

(Video) A Misplaced Comma Cost a Company $5 Million
The commas that cost companies millions (3)

An 1872 feud over tariffs and tropical fruits cost taxpayers $40 million — all caused by a comma (Credit: Getty Images)

Members of the US Congress debated the issue and the issue was resolved – but not before the New York Times complained about the use of“An expensive comma”. It wouldn't be the last such mistake.

Contract language is like software code: do it right and everything will run smoothly. But make a typo and the whole thing falls apart

“Contract language is limited and stylized,” says Adams. He compares it to software code: do it right and everything will run smoothly. But make a typo and the whole thing falls apart.

When errors are introduced into legal documents, they are likely to be noticed much more than in any other form of writing, he says. "People are more likely to fight over instances of syntactic ambiguity than in other types of writing."

The waters muddy

(Video) How a Missing Comma Cost a Company $5 Million

Of course, those drafting contracts may want to introduce ambiguities in some circumstances. It can be challenging to get different countries to sign the same principles, especially for climate agreements.

Early conventions on climate change included this rule:

The parties have the right to promote sustainable development and must do so.”

The sentence ensures that those who sign the agreement have the opportunity to promote sustainable development - and they should.

But in the original version, the second comma was placed after "promote", not before:

The parties have a right to and must promote sustainable development.”

Some countries were not happy with the original wording because they did not necessarily want to be committed to promoting sustainable development. Moving the comma kept the naysayers happy and calmed those who wanted stronger action.

“Being somewhat creative with punctuation can help countries feel their interests have been addressed,” explains Stephen Cornelius, lead climate change adviser at the WWF, who has represented the UK and the EU in UN climate change negotiations. "You're trying to make an agreement that people can largely agree with."

The commas that cost companies millions (4)

Most people try to make the contract language as clear as possible, but sometimes a little ambiguity can help both parties negotiate better (Credit: Getty Images)

Tricks of the trade

Such language flexibility is more common than you might think.

"In diplomacy, even if you're trying to make a single deal, it's very common to change the meaning for different parties," said climate negotiator Laura Hanning Scarborough. “You can use terms like 'among other things' or 'this includes' to blur the boundaries and include everything. You can also use commas for that. There are so many language tricks you use to appease people.”

However, for most people it is important to make sure contracts are unambiguous. For that reason, it's critical to push contract language to its limits by giving it to someone who will test its limits — someone who will read it in the most clumsy, unhelpful way possible, says Tiffany Kemp, a commercial contract trainer for the International Association for Contract and Commercial Management.

One of the biggest comma battles was a dispute between two Canadian telecommunications companies. Rogers Communications and Bell Aliant fought a CAD$1 million ($760,000) legal battle over a contract to replace power poles across the country.

The argument sprang from a single sentence:

“This Agreement is effective from the date it is created and will remain in effect for a period of five (5) years from the date it is created, and thereafter for consecutive five (5) year terms, unless and until it is terminated upon one year's prior written notice by either party.”

The two sides argued that the comma after "terms of five (5) years" meant something different: Bell Aliant said that the one-year notice period applied at any time, Rogers that it only applied after the first term of five years had passed.

This was important because Rogers had accomplished a lot reading the contract: when they signed a contract to rent the poles from Bell Aliant in 2002, they only paid CAD$9.60 per pole. By 2004, costs had nearly doubled. Bell Aliant understandably wanted to terminate the contract and renegotiate at the new, higher price. Not Rogers.

Successive courts were equally uncertain about the agreement: Canada's Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission first ruled in favor of Bell Aliant in 2006; a year later it changed its mind after consulting the French-language version of the contract, which did not contain the same ambiguity.

(Video) No Oxford Comma = $10M

This dispute has not come about through conscious ignorance, Kemp believes. "Sometimes there are really different views," she explains. "That little comma is put in a place that would put you in a place to breathe when you read it aloud."

Deadly punctuation

How do these misplaced or misused commas find their way into complicated contracts drawn up by professionals? Part of the problem, Adams says, is technology. “Drafting contracts has long been a function of copying and pasting past contracts, and that results in a sort of carelessness, a detachment from the core of how you've expressed what you want to express in a contract,” he says. "It's easy to overlook these kinds of problems."

In an extreme example, a misplaced comma was at the heart of a death penalty trial

In an extreme example, a misplaced comma was at the heart of a death penalty trial.

Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, was hanged in 1916 under the Treason Act of 1351. He had induced Irish prisoners of war held in Germany to band together to fight against the British. The debate over whether Casement was guilty hinged on the wording of the 14th-century law of treason and the use of a comma: with that, Casement's actions were illegal in Germany; without it he would get away with it.

The commas that cost companies millions (5)

Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, was hanged in 1916 (Credit: Getty Images)

Despite Casement's lead counsel's assertion that "crimes should not depend on the meaning of breaks or commas", and "when a crime depends on a comma, the case should be decided in favor of the accused, not the Kroon", the court ruled that the comma mattered. Casement was found guilty and executed.

Although today life and death no longer depend on the use of commas, but big money, insurance policies and environmental agreements certainly do.

That's why it's important to carefully review all the contracts we sign, the experts say - and that means not only dotting the i's and crossing the T's, but also making sure every comma is in the right place.

People sign contracts not because they've negotiated their meaning, but based on their own understanding of what they're agreeing to, Nobles explains. Contracts written by lawyers on behalf of a company may have a different meaning than what the layman understands.

So paying attention pays off. If any punctuation seems out of place or introduces ambiguity, let me know.

"The purpose of a contract is to help people get the results they both expected, and to know what they're supposed to do and get from the other side," says Kemp.

“If there is a misunderstanding, you owe it to both of you to sort it out. Make the argument today, not tomorrow.

It can prevent a lot of suffering in the future.

(Video) Oxford Comma Helps Dairy Drivers Claim Victory in Lawsuit



How a comma cost millions? ›

The US Government vs. Fruit ($38,400,000) Rather than a missing comma, an unwanted comma in US Tariff Act of 1872 cost the US Government two million dollars (around $38.4 million in today's money). The issue arose because of a clause that exempted “fruit plants” from import tariffs.

What is the comma that cost 5 million? ›

The company disagreed. A missing comma in a labor law decided the case. Words have meaning (including incorrectly used words that can make you look dumb). And so does punctuation: The lack of one Oxford comma in a Maine state law just cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million in overtime pay.

What is an example of the Oxford comma lawsuit? ›

A group of dairy drivers argued that they deserved overtime pay for certain tasks they had completed. The company said they did not. An appeals court sided with the drivers, saying that the guidelines themselves were made too ambiguous by, you guessed it, a lack of an Oxford comma. (3) Perishable foods.

How much did the Oxford comma payout? ›

A Maine dairy company has settled a lawsuit over an overtime dispute that was the subject of a ruling that hinged on the use of the Oxford comma. An absent "Oxford comma" will cost a Maine dairy company $5 million.

What is comma with example? ›

Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. Example: I love vanilla ice cream, but my brother prefers chocolate.

What is comma rule #1 example? ›

Rule 1: Use a comma after an introductory clause. When he had tired of the mad pace of New York, he moved to Dubuque. Omit the comma if no ambiguity would result unless it would slow comprehension. During the day he stayed out of sight.

How many commas are in a million? ›

How Many Zeros in a Million? How Many Zeros in a Billion? Reference Chart
NameNumber of ZerosWritten Out
One Thousand31,000
Ten Thousand410,000
One Hundred Thousand5100,000
One Million61,000,000
8 more rows
Feb 1, 2019

What is comma rule 5? ›

COMMA RULE #5 – THE COMMA WITH NONESSENTIAL WORDS, PHRASES, AND CLAUSES: Separate with a comma any nonessential words or groups of words from the rest of the sentence. 1. Separate “interrupter” words like however, nevertheless, yes, no, of course, from the rest of the sentence.

How much commas should be in a sentence? ›

Some writers think of a comma as a soft pause—a punctuation mark that separates words, clauses, or ideas within a sentence. Therefore there is no limit on the number of commas that we may use in a sentence.

Why is the Oxford comma so controversial? ›

Many opponents of the Oxford comma claim that it makes a piece of writing sound more pretentious and stuffy, and that it can make things seem cluttered and redundant. Many magazine publishers renounce its use as well, because sentences loaded with commas take up valuable page space.

Why do lawyers not use Oxford commas? ›

Usually the Oxford comma is the safest way to avoid ambiguity, though there are no guarantees. But inconsistent use in a single document or across multiple documents invites litigation—so avoid it.

Does anyone still use the Oxford comma? ›

The use of the Oxford comma is a matter of style, meaning that some publishing styles stipulate its use while others don't. In other words, it's not incorrect to use the Oxford comma or not to use it, but it is advisable to be consistent one way or the other.

Did truckers win lawsuit with Oxford comma? ›

A judge ruled in the drivers' favor last March, and it was all thanks to the lack of an Oxford comma in a Maine labor law. An Oxford comma is the comma used after the second-to-last item in a list of three or more things, “item A, item B, and item C.” It's not often used in journalism.

What is the $10 million lawsuit that hinges on an Oxford comma? ›

O'Connor, along with about 75 other drivers, filed a class-action lawsuit to sue Oakhurst Dairy for $10 million in unpaid overtime. Watch the video to find out the judge's ruling and see if that Oxford comma came in to save the day for O'Connor and his fellow drivers.

Why is it called the Oxford comma? ›

What Is the Oxford Comma? The Oxford comma is the final comma that comes before the conjunction in a list of three or more items. Its name comes from the Oxford University Press (OUP), where for over a century it has been standard in the Oxford Style Manual.

What are the 4 types of commas? ›

There are four types of comma: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas.

What are the 8 rules for commas? ›

Commas (Eight Basic Uses)
  • Use a comma to separate independent clauses. ...
  • Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. ...
  • Use a comma between all items in a series. ...
  • Use commas to set off nonrestrictive clauses. ...
  • Use a comma to set off appositives. ...
  • Use a comma to indicate direct address. ...
  • Use commas to set off direct quotations.

What are the three main uses of a comma? ›

Comma Usage

A comma is a punctuation mark that indicates a pause in the sentence. The most common three rules of commas involve introducers, interrupters, and add-ons.

Do you put a comma after 3 words? ›

Use a comma after phrases of more than three words that begin a sentence. If the phrase has fewer than three words, the comma is optional.

Can you use 3 commas in a sentence? ›

Sentences that include lists of items will often have three or more commas. This is one of the only times you will see more than two commas in one sentence. Commas can separate items, phrases, and clauses.

What is an example of comma rule 2? ›

Rule 2. Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the order of the adjectives is interchangeable. Example: He is a strong, healthy man. We could also say healthy, strong man.

Is two commas a million? ›

Etymology. From million written with two commas (1,000,000).

How do you write in millions? ›

If we wanted to denote millions, we would show that as MM. For this, we should credit the Romans. M is the Roman numeral for thousand and MM is meant to convey one thousand-thousand — or million. To take it further; one billion would be shown as $1MMM or one-thousand million.

How do you write million in a sentence? ›

The war was a million miles away. The operation aimed to visit three million homes. We have to raise a million dollars a day.

What is the comma rule 7? ›

7. USE COMMAS TO SET OFF DIRECT QUOTATIONS. Rule: A dialogue is a conversation between two or more people. If the speaker (not the listener) in the conversation is identified, his name, (or the noun or pronoun used to refer to the speaker), and the verb that refers to his speaking are enclosed within commas.

What is an example of comma rule 7? ›

Example: If we don't go soon, Barney, it will be too late. Comma Rule 7: In direct quotes, use a comma (or commas) to separate the speaker from the quote.

What is comma rule 11? ›

For example, "I lay under the powerful summer sun." Page 13 Rule #11 A comma is used to separate the name of a city from the name of the state or country. A comma also follows the state or country name when other words follow in the sentence.

What does 3 commas mean? ›

It is online slang, generally used to indicate a more emphasized trail-off, somewhat like a mixture between an ellipsis and comma, like you'd hear after saying "anyhow". – Azsgy.

What does 2 commas mean? ›

Use two commas to set off an appositive or an aside in the midst of a sentence. An appositive is a word or phrase that describes a noun it follows. An aside tells us something about the noun, but is not essential to defining the noun.

Do I need a comma in this sentence? ›

Use a comma when the first word of the sentence is freestanding “yes” or “no.” Use a comma when directly addressing someone or something in a sentence. Use a comma between two adjectives that modify the same noun. Use a comma to offset negation in a sentence.

Why are people getting rid of Oxford comma? ›

The Oxford comma is a little punctuation gem that can be used when listing a series of things in a sentence. It comes right before the conjunction in a sentence. Some individuals know to eliminate the extra comma because it can be categorized as incorrect and viewed as hyper-specific.

Why do Americans use Oxford comma? ›

Introduction. The Oxford comma is a comma that is used when writing a list of items. It appears after the second to last item in the list, before the final "and" or "or." Proper use of the comma in American English is mandatory for equal representation and understanding of ideas.

When should you not use the Oxford comma? ›

This is an important distinction in most cases. To recap: Don't use the serial comma if the list is simple. Do use the serial comma if you're connecting items that already have conjunctions.

Does the government use the Oxford comma? ›

Common Style Guide Rules for Oxford Comma Use

Style guides that encourage the use of the Oxford comma: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, the MLA Style Manual, The Chicago Manual of Style, APA style, and the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual all adopt the Oxford comma in their house style.

When did the Oxford comma become a thing? ›

The big shift in this thinking came in 1905, when a printer named Horace Hart updated his style guide for Oxford University Press, requiring his employees to use a comma before the last item in a series.

What's the difference between an Oxford comma and a comma? ›

When you're writing a list, you naturally include commas to separate each item, but an Oxford comma is when you also put a comma before the “and [Final Item]”. For example: Without Oxford comma: “Her favourite foods were chocolate, marshmallows, cake and chicken.”

Why the Oxford comma is good? ›

It Prevents Confusion

This is the biggest and best argument for using the Oxford comma in any writing, but especially copywriting. As a marketer, you have a job to do, and that is to convince your audience that they need your business, products, or services. If you confuse them, it doesn't help your case.

How much money was at stake in the recent lawsuit involving a missing Oxford comma? ›

In the epic and endless debate over the propriety of the Oxford comma, chalk this one up as a Big Win for punctuation people. The absence of an Oxford comma was the deciding factor in a $5 million settlement of a federal lawsuit in Maine.

Who doesn't use the Oxford comma? ›

Some entities, such as newspapers, use the AP style of writing. This style does not allow for the use of Oxford commas. Generally, the use of the Oxford comma is up to the writer. However, if you're taking an English class, the instructor may insist that you don't use it.

Why do Brits not use the Oxford comma? ›

Serial/Oxford Comma

Despite being named after a British University, the Oxford comma (the comma used before “and” in lists (e.g., I like wookies, ewoks, and droids)) is not considered standard in UK English because only one style guide (Oxford) recommends it.

Which countries use the Oxford comma? ›

In the US, many speakers (including the authorities of MLA, Chicago Style Guide[,] and the US Government Printing Office) use the Oxford comma. Several other publishers (e.g., Cambridge) in nations like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa[,] and the UK (except for Oxford) don't promote it publicly.

How many commas does $1 million have? ›

One million has six zeros (1,000,000), while one billion has nine zeros (1,000,000,000).

Do you use a comma or period with millions? ›

Use a comma (not a point or space) to set off thousands/millions in whole numbers: for example, “6,800”, “25,612”, “25,612,800”. Use “billion” to mean a thousand million (1,000,000,000), and “trillion” to mean a thousand billion (1,000,000,000,000).

Does $1000 need a comma? ›

Numbers with 4 or more digits (starting from 1,000) need a comma. Use commas for numerals in text and in tables. You need to use a combination of words and numerals for large rounded numbers over a million. Large rounded numbers are punctuated with a decimal point.

How do you write 2 million dollars? ›

2000000 in words is written as Two Million.

How is $1 million written? ›

As we know, 1 million = 1, 000, 000 or one thousand thousand.

How much is 2 commas in money? ›

From the table above (if I haven't memorized this information yet), I know that this means that I'm dealing with tens of thousands. The one comma tells me that I'm dealing with thousands, too; one comma means I'm into the thousands, two commas would have meant I'd have been into the millions, and so forth.

How do you use millions in a sentence? ›

The war was a million miles away. The operation aimed to visit three million homes. We have to raise a million dollars a day.

Is 3 commas a million or billion? ›

How long does it take to become a billionaire and enter the three-comma club? Three-comma club indicate a billion dollars because $1,000,000,000 has 3 commas. If you become a part of the three commas club, that means that you are a billionaire.

Do you put a comma for a dollar amount? ›

United States (U.S.) currency is formatted with a decimal point (.) as a separator between the dollars and cents. Some countries use a comma (,) instead of a decimal to indicate that separation.

Should there be a comma for 100000? ›

In English, we use commas to separate numbers greater than 999. We use a comma every third digit from the right. More than 50,000 people turned up to protest.

Does 1500 need a comma? ›

Numbers with two or more digits should be written as numerals unless they are at the start of a sentence (see examples). Numbers between 1000 and 9999 should contain no punctuation. Numbers with five or more digits should include commas (not decimal points or full stops).

Do you need a comma for 1000 or 1 000? ›

It's quite common only to use comma separators for numbers 10,000 or larger, which is the OP's question. But using commas for 1000 and larger (except years) is not considered bad style.

Do you write 1 million or one million? ›

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends spelling out the numbers zero through one hundred and using figures thereafter—except for whole numbers used in combination with hundred, thousand, hundred thousand, million, billion, and beyond (e.g., two hundred; twenty-eight thousand; three hundred thousand; one million).

How do you write 2.2 million? ›

2.2 million written in number form is 2,200,000. The . 2 million reflects 10 percent of 2 million or 200,000. When spoken or written out in words, 2.2 million is two million two hundred thousand.


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