A 19th century tariff and a 21st century Facebook post had a similar problem. They paid a price for poor punctuation.
A Costly Comma
Our story takes us to mid-19th century tariff policy. While import taxes on a long list of fruits funded government, fruit plants did not. As the law stated, “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation…” were “exempt from duty.” At the same time a 10 or 20 percent tariff applied to most imported tropical fruit like grapes and pineapples.
Shown in yellow, tariff dollars dominated federal revenue in 1872:
In the original legislation, plants were excluded from tariffs while fruit was not. But then, someone placed a comma after fruit:
All of a sudden a long list of tropical and semi-tropical fruits became tariff-free. Instead of raising $2 million in revenue (perhaps $40 million today but the calculation is inexact), tax collectors got nothing. The reason? A misplaced comma.
An Absent Apostrophe
Rather than a comma, an apostrophe became a problem for an Australian real estate agent. In his Facebook post, he said his boss “can’t pay his employees superannuation.” The problem word is employees. Without an apostrophe he was defaming his employer by implying a “systemic pattern of conduct” that avoided retirement benefits. The penalty could be tens of thousand of dollars. But, if he really meant “can’t pay his employee’s superannuation” then it’s just about one person’s complaint.
Whatever the resolution, the man did not know his apostrophes. Even the plural form needed one, after the “s.”
Our Bottom Line: Cost
As economists, we know that cost need not refer to money. Defined as sacrifice, the cost of a comma or apostrophe can be clear communication. So yes, like all decisions, punctuation has a cost. And when we choose to do it poorly, the sacrificed alternative is expressing what you really wanted to convey and creating costly consequences.
My sources and more: A NY Times article reminded me that it was time to return to costly punctuation while Vox told more about the 1972 tariff blunder. Instead, if you want an entire tariff history, Douglas Irwin’s Clashing Over Commerce is your go-to book. Finally, for more on what punctuation can cost, do take a look at this past econlife post.