Three Famous Commas

    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.
    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 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.


About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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