The most expensive typing error ever?

Nasa’s missing hyphen; the extra ‘s’ that could cost £8.8 million; and recipes for disaster

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

In Paul Gallico’s 1939 novel The Adventures of Hiram Holliday, the hero’s journey is set in motion by a comma. Hiram is a copy-reader on a New York morning paper, and the comma — ‘eventually known as the $500,000 comma’ — is one he inserts into a contentious article that saves his employer in a libel case. The publisher rewards him with a $1,000 bonus and a month’s paid vacation, and he sails for Europe, where he fights Nazis and rescues a princess.

In real life, sadly, publicity comes not to the Hirams of the world but to the anti-Hirams. Another one had his day in the stocks last week, when the High Court gave its judgment on what may eventually be known as the £8.8 million ‘s’.

This ‘s’ cropped up in a database search made at Companies House six years ago by a clerk who was meant to register the liquidation of a firm called Taylor & Son. Instead he applied a digital death notice to Taylor & Sons, a Welsh engineering company that had survived two world wars and was just then reorganising to deal with the aftermath of the financial crisis. Though the information at Companies House was corrected three days later, the mistake had already spread into other people’s records: Taylor & Sons’ suppliers stopped its credit, and the business went into administration.

That £8.8 million figure is the price that lawyers for the company’s former managing director put on the error. Even if it’s accepted in full, however, the ‘s’ will not be the most expensive typo in history. For starters, there is the single missing character blamed for the failure of Mariner 1, an unmanned Nasa mission bound for Venus that fizzled shortly after its launch in 1962. (Contemporary reports spoke of a hyphen left out somewhere in the guidance code, but excited pedants have since advanced several competing theories: Mariner 1 is probably the only space probe to have a section in its Wikipedia entry headed ‘Other punctuation’.)

Nor yet, though Taylor & Sons had 250 employees, is it the most tragic. In New South Wales two years ago, a boy of 18 months went into cardiac arrest while his parents awaited an ambulance that had apparently been booked on to the dispatch system for 19.14 instead of 9.14. He later died in hospital.

It does, however, have all the characteristics of a classic catastrophic typo: a single tiny change inserted, like Hiram’s $500,000 comma, at a point where it turns out to make an explosive difference. The perfect typo is small enough that writers and editors read over it, subconsciously substituting what should be there, and yet consequential enough that every innocent reader will notice it.

For maximum horror, the typo should give rise not to an absurdity, but to something plausible yet wrong. The notorious Penguin Pasta Bible of 2010, in which the tagliatelle with prosciutto called for ‘freshly ground black people’, caused much sniggering, a great deal of justified embarrassment, and a reprint; but it won’t have ruined anyone’s dinner. I’m not sure as much is true of the spicy tomato soup recipe that appeared in the Guardian last October, specifying half a tablespoon of cayenne pepper instead of half a teaspoon.

Semi-automated systems, like the Companies House database or the New South Wales ambulance dispatch computer, can turn clumsiness into destruction more efficiently than human ones, but their limited inputs also make them easier to secure against typogeddon. (Companies House, for instance, already had a policy of rejecting any winding up order that didn’t come with the company’s unique identifying number —but it had apparently failed to explain this properly to the people meant to do the rejection. They almost certainly know now.)

With continuous prose, here at The Spectator, for instance, there is still no substitute for a skilled proofreader — preferably one coming to the material fresh, so that there are no previous drafts or expectations to get between them and the text. The kind of focus required is peculiar: you have to see exactly what’s in front of you while simultaneously forming pictures of what might be meant to be there, and spotting the difference.

Very few people can keep that double focus up all the time — as readers of this magazine, for which I am chief sub, may have noticed. That’s why my heart goes out to the anti-Hirams. In time, the spellcheck tolls for us all.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Peter Robins is The Spectator’s chief sub, a job that makes him responsible for all the typographical errors in this magazine.

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Show comments
  • David

    Why ‘Wiki-pedia’ not ‘Wikipedia’?

    • peter_robins

      That was an Indesign discretionary hyphen to correct a dodgy line-break, and should have been left behind in the print version. I shall correct; thank you.

  • PoissonGateaux

    why— ‘eventually known as the $500,000 comma’ ? Surely — eventually known as the ‘$500,000 comma’

    • peter_robins

      Because that’s a direct quote from the novel; ‘eventually’ out of quotes would sit oddly in the plot-describing historic present around it.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    May I submit my congratulations to Mr Robins upon his position, and my best wishes to him and to his colleagues. It is due to his untiring efforts that the Spectator remains steadfastly opposed to the Guardian at all levels rather than just the political one.

    I would offer him a drink were he in my vicinity, but I fear that he will have to be satisfied with the wish rather than the action…

  • polistra24

    Since this is about linguistic precision, I should point out that a compositor is not likely to be the source of a typo.

    A typesetter is the one who assembles letters into lines, either by hand or with a Ludlow or Linotype machine. A spelling or punctuation error is most likely to come from the typesetter, or else it was in the handwritten text that the typesetter is working from.

    The picture does show a compositor at work…. he’s taking the lines or blocks of lines from the typesetter, along with cuts (engraved pictures). He arranges them into a form that will print one page. He doesn’t change letters or spaces within a line, so he’s not likely to be the source of an error.

    • peter_robins

      That’s excellent pedantry – thank you! I think I will leave the pic as a monument to hubris rather than going off and finding a Linotype operator one, if that’s all right with you.

  • Adam Schwartz

    I would love to read this article but the site is telling me “You’ve reached your limit of free Spectator articles for this month.” How can that be, since this is the first time I’ve visited the Spectator site this month? I’ve tried three different browsers, too.

    • peter_robins

      Our paywall has been known to misbehave from time to time – apologies. I’ll draw your comment to the attention of people who might know what’s up; thank you for mentioning it.

      In the meantime, if you really want to read it and we’re still not letting you, email me – my work address is my first name at my employer’s domain – and I’ll email you the text. (I can’t promise that the piece will be worth the effort.)

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Par for the course in trash culture UK, where learning and education are ridiculed as elitist.

    • little islander

      Could it be you are ridiculed not for your learning and education but for being so full of it?

      • Brimstone52

        If only it were learning and education that he was full of.

  • Picquet

    Good article. I do wish that other authors would reply individually to those who comment on their articles; some of the hooks I’ve scattered around the Guardian need their bite.

  • freddiethegreat

    Apparently the WW1 ceasefire agreement was typed back to front – a carbon paper glitch. Does this mean we are still at war?