Times When Commas Have Been Critical

by Jeanette the Writer
published in Writing

It may appear to be a tiny little mark, barely bigger than a period. YET, the usage or omission of a comma can make a huge difference in your meaning and maybe even your wallet. Let’s take a look at three times when a comma could have or did change the course of history.

Tariff Act of 1872

I think we all hate paying taxes, but fruit importers got a break from theirs when a clerk misprinted a hyphen as a comma instead. The early United States began imposing tariffs (taxes) on imported goods as far back as 1789. Over time, these laws were modified and had to be copied into new documents.

Well, maybe they didn’t have their coffee that day, but a poor clerk writing up the new tariff made a boo-boo and added a comma where it shouldn’t have been. The original law (from 1870) had exempted “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation.” But in 1872, a stray comma came in after “fruit,” which made importers argue that all fruits (not just full fruit plants) should be exempt.

People made arguments and debated on both sides. Congress eventually changed the comma, but not before refunding over $2 million ($40 million with inflation) to importers they had taxed while the comma was in place. 

Maine Dairy Deliveries

Big corporations will do anything to save a buck—except check their commas. In 2014, five drivers for a dairy company sued the company for overtime pay, which they claimed stemmed from the lack of the Oxford (serial) comma in their contract.

The contract said that overtime did not apply to workers involved in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” perishable foods. 

Notice how this list does not have a comma before the “or”? Well, that lack of the serial comma in this sentence implies that the overtime exemption doesn’t apply to those who ONLY distribute and do not pack the items.

The courts officially agreed with this reading of the document and awarded a $5 Million settlement covering 127 drivers. So, before you go arguing for or against the Oxford comma, make sure your meaning comes first and your preference comes second.

Mahomes v. Rodgers

We’ve all seen the “let’s eat grandma” example of comma usage. When we’re talking about eating with our grandma, we need what’s called the “vocative comma” to indicate we’re addressing her. Without it, it appears as if we’re about to ingest our family. That isn’t a critical example because the likelihood we’ll actually be eating someone’s grandma is pretty low. 

But the possibility of a new sports rivalry was pretty high in 2023 when NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes omitted a comma from his post about Aaron Rodgers. This was the original post:

“Hate that man… praying for the best ?”

Kind of ambiguous as to what was going on here. At first glance, it looks like Patrick is dissing Aaron and praying that his team loses the game. But then he edited the post with the vocative comma, and it made so much more sense:

“Hate that, man… praying for the best ?”

Now we understand that Patrick hates that Aaron was injured on the first drive of the game (not that he hates Aaron himself) and wishes him a speedy recovery. That vocative comma is critical here to help with understanding.

A new sports rivalry could have been created from this one little omission. Think about it—hundreds of thousands of fans possibly hating each other over a grammar mistake. That is the power of a comma!

So, the next time you think, “Oh, it doesn’t matter if I have the commas right,” think again. One little mark could mean a big difference.

Jeanette the Writer is a freelance editor and writer based in Dallas, TX. When not at her computer, you can find her crafting, mermaiding, or posting videos of her cats on TikTok. Visit JeanettetheWriter.com for more info and follow @Jeanettediting on TikTok or find her on LinkedIn.

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