- THE FATAL COMMA
Czarina Maria Fyodorovna once saved the life of a man by transposing a single comma in a warrant signed by her husband, Alexander III, which exiled a criminal to imprisonment and death in Siberia. On the bottom of the warrant the czar had written: `Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.’ The czarina changed the punctuation so that her husband’s instructions read: `Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.’ The man was set free.
- THE BLASPHEMOUS COMMA
In several editions of the King James Bible, Luke 23:32 is changed entirely by the absence of a comma. In the passage that describes the other men crucified with Christ, the erroneous editions read: `And there were also two other malefactors.’ Instead of counting Christ as a malefactor, the passage should read: `And there were also two other, malefactors.’
- THE MILLION-DOLLAR COMMA
The US government lost at least a million dollars through the slip of a comma. In the tariff act passed on June 6, 1872, a list of duty-free items included: `Fruit plants, tropical and semitropical’. A government clerk accidentally altered the line to read: `Fruit, plants tropical and semitropical’. Importers successfully contended that the passage, as written, exempted all tropical and semitropical plants from duty fees. This cost the US a fortune until May 9, 1874, when the passage was amended to plug the hole.
I always think these sorts of grammatical stories are apocryphal, but these seem to me to be persuasive examples. They are taken from a Canongate Books website for The Book of Lists by By David Wallechinsky & Amy Wallace. Their other lists include 13 Sayings of Woody Allen, 17 Pairs of Contradictory Proverbs, 23 Obscure and Obsolete Words, and 33 Names of Things You Never Knew had Names.