As a marketing writer I also do a fair amount of editing. Over the years I’ve seen that many people get tripped up by punctuation. Should you use a semicolon or a colon? When do you use an apostrophe? And so forth.
|THE MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR PUNCTUATION ERROR
What’s the difference between “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma”? When you leave out the comma, Grandma goes from being the dinner guest to being the dinner entrée!
As a recent court case proves, ambiguous or incorrect punctuation can be costly for businesses. The case hinged on the lack of an “Oxford comma” (i.e. a comma used after the next-to-last item in a list of three or more items, before “and” or “or”) in a Maine statute. This law states that employees who work in “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of certain food or agricultural products are not entitled to overtime pay.
Because there is no comma after “shipment,” that last phrase either refers to:
In O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, the employees in question drove delivery trucks. They distributed products, but did not pack products. Were they eligible for overtime pay? If the statute was interpreted as per #1 above, then yes. But if the statute was interpreted as per #2 above, then no.
Ultimately the court determined that the statute was ambiguous, and the interpretation most advantageous to the employees therefore prevailed. That one missing comma probably cost employers millions of dollars in overtime pay.
What could this type of error or oversight do to your business? This is a reminder to always thoroughly proofread everything, from marketing pieces to proposals, contracts, memos and more. Pay special attention to the punctuation, because incorrect or missing punctuation can completely change your message’s meaning. At best this can make your company look bad. At worst it can be a very costly mistake!