Technical authoring: Be precise, be very precise

Technical authoring blog

Undoubtedly, one of the most important skills I bring to technical authoring is being precise… to the point of pedantry… and, yes, I’m proud of it!

Accuracy is critical. In fact, there’s probably nothing more important for a technical author to focus on. But not just in the world of technical communications; I recently read a newspaper article that reminded me of the importance of accuracy in many aspects of life. Below is a small collection.

A spelling mistake made a 134-year business go bust

Companies House (London) made a simple, but critical spelling mistake, which led to a family business established in 1875 that employed 250 people to go out of business, and eventually led to £8.8m of compensation being paid.

Taylor & Sons Ltd. was a successful engineering firm that had taken five generations to build. However, it was mistakenly wound up after Companies House confused it with another business called Taylor & Son Ltd. (Notice the difference.)

Details of the family business, Taylor & Sons Ltd., were sold on to the credit reference agencies, so leading to loss of suppliers and the company missing out on £3 million of business. The family spent three years fighting for compensation, and eventually the High Court ruled that Companies House was liable and ordered a compensation payment of nearly £9 million.

Inaccurate punctuation costs US Government $millions

The US Tariff Act of 1872 included a line intended to exempt the importation of semi-tropical and tropical fruit plants – i.e. tropical plants, not tropical fruit – from tariffs import (of 20%).

The directive was meant to exempt “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation”. However, the comma was inexplicably placed after the word “fruit” so that the wording became: “fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation”.

Fruit importers used the misplaced comma to argue that all tropical and semi-tropical fruit were exempt from duty, and after some legal toing and froing, won the case, and so were able to avoid paying the import tax!

In a later Tariff Act the error was fixed by placing the comma after the word “plants”, but in the intervening time the US government missed out on an estimated $1.5m – and that’s in old money worth about $30m today! Oops.

Hanged on a comma

Sir Roger Casement was hanged as a traitor to Britain in 1916, and it is argued that it was in part due to the debatable accuracy of one specific comma in the Treason Act 1351.

Casement was convicted partly for attempting to persuade Irish prisoners of war who were held in Germany to form an Irish Brigade to fight against the British. During the trial, Casement’s counsel argued that acts performed outside the UK could not amount to treason within the UK. The crucial text of the act stated:

“…if a Man do levy War against our Lord the King in his Realm, or be adherent to the King’s Enemies in his Realm, giving to them Aid and Comfort in his Realm, or elsewhere …”

Importantly, the final comma above seems to have been added to the Treason Act after the Casement trial (presumably for clarification). Without the comma it was argued by Casement’s counsel that the offence needed to occur “in his Realm” though the effect of that assistance could be to aid and comfort the King’s enemies wherever those enemies were located. But it could be interpreted the phrase “or elsewhere” applies to all three instances of “in his Realm” quoted above. This latter meaning was accepted by the court, and so Casement was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging.

Casement appealed arguing again that the offence outside the King’s realm was not treason. Two of the judges said they compared the English law against the original Norman French wording in this passage and noticed some discrepancies, and discussions took place over whether a mark on the original roll indicated a comma, a bracket or a paper-fold!

The result was the appeal was rejected, and Sir Roger Casement was hanged 99 years ago… partly over the interpretation of a comma.

Re-sign or resign

A few examples of sub-standard signage:

  • A sign hung on a farm gate that had no punctuation where some was surely needed: “COWS PLEASE CLOSE THE GATE”, or maybe the farmer has super smart cattle?
  • A summer school camp that I wouldn’t send my kids to: “So fun, they won’t even know their learning”.
  • Another non-punctuated sign: “CAUTION BE CAREFUL OF PARASAILING HORSES AND BUGGIES ON THE BEACH” – Well, I’ve never seen an elephant fly…!
  • And finally: “Perfection Has It’s Price”. Hmm.

Final thoughts

Most of the time our written accuracy doesn’t directly cause someone to die or hundreds of people losing their jobs or the cost of millions of dollars/pounds. But we still need to be precise; I’ve proof-read work where someone has accidentally left the word “not” out of a sentence – rather a crucial mistake to make, just imagine if that were in a warning “Do not touch the end of the red wire.”!

Do you know of any other important or funny punctuation errors that you want to share? Please reply with them.


Technical authoring: Be precise, be very precise
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