Most Expensive Grammar Mistakes in History

For most of us, typos and punctuation errors will at most earn a rap on the knuckles, or at the very least, leave us embarrassed. However, when companies worth tens of billions blunder, the stakes could be much higher. Some of the most expensive cases of grammar mistakes in history are mentioned below.

Don’t ignore the hyphen
NASA launched the Mariner I probe on July 22, 1962. The spacecraft was especially designed to gather scientific information during a flyby of Venus. Unfortunately, the probe had to be destroyed when it veered off course within seconds after the launch, setting the US government back by around $80 million. What led this colossal and most expensive failure? The humble hyphen – programmers had overlooked a hyphen in the programing code. In his book The Promise of Space, writer Arthur C Clarke rightly dubs it the “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

Comma debate
Truck drivers of Oakhurst Dairy (Portland, US) filed a class-action lawsuit claiming four years of unpaid overtime wages, potentially totaling $13 million, in the US state of Maine owing to a missing comma in a legal clause.

The Maine state law exempts workers from overtime pay for the following activities:

  • The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of (a) agricultural produce, (b) meat and fish products, and (c) perishable foods.

Apparently, one of the truck drivers must be a stickler for the correct use of punctuations, or at any rate, paid more attention in his grammar class, which bore fruit substantially. The drivers contended that the lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “distribution” means it can be considered that “packing for shipment or distribution” is a single activity. The issue arises from the legislation’s use of the noun “distribution” as a verb. In keeping in style with the rest of the verbs, it should have been written as “distributing”. Simply put, it should have been separated from “packaging” with a comma to lend clarity and avoid ambiguity. Since drivers do not pack but only deliver the goods, they argued that they qualified for overtime payment.

Coin typo
Are you willing to the pay the price of a coin? Unfortunately, for Chile’s mint managing director, it cost him his job. Gregorio Iniguez was sacked over a coin fiasco where he approved the circulation of thousands of coins with a typo in the country’s name. In 2008, 50 peso coins, amounting to 10 US cents each, were issued with Chile misspelled as Chiie – an error that was not noticed until much later. Although the coins bore an incorrect spelling, their value remained the same. Some have even collected these misspelt coins as antique pieces hoping their rates would rise over the years. Perhaps Mr. Iniguez wishes he had proof read before the circulation.

An inebriated mistake?
Do you think a spell checker is surplus to requirements? The next case will make you think again. In 2007, a full unopened bottle of Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, brewed in 1852 specially for Sir Belcher’s Arctic Expedition, was auctioned on eBay. The rare beverage that should have had hundreds of buyers vying for the prize had only two bids because the user left out the second “p” in Allsopp’s. So bidders who typed the correct spelling missed out on the deal, with the lucky winner closing the deal for just $304. Weeks later, he auctioned off the vintage brew on the same site, which eventually sold for a staggering $503,300.

Companies incur millions or billions of dollars in losses because of a simple typo that besmirches their brand reputation or undermines their credibility in the eyes of the hard-to-please customers. This could have significant consequences financially for these players and make the public doubt their claims.

A study of LinkedIn profiles indicates that users with fewer grammatical errors are chosen over those riddled with typos, although they boast of impressive credentials. The proper placement of punctuations and a good understanding of grammar rules could pave the way for a brighter career, and not to mention, save you from mortifying situations.