Photo credit: Julian Hanford
Photo credit: Julian Hanford
A view from Dave Trott

A view from Dave Trott: Close enough is good enough

Can you spot the difference between these two?


"Fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation."


"Fruit, plants tropical and semi-tropical for the purpose of propagation or cultivation."

They look pretty much the same, don’t they?

Who cares what the difference is?

You’d have to be pretty anal to bother about it, surely. 

Don’t worry if you didn’t spot it, neither did the man whose job it was.

The answer is a single comma.

It’s there, but it has been moved one word to the left.

That single comma cost the US government $40 million.

That was a tiny section of the 1872 US Tariff Act.

The original, the way it was supposed to have been written, was the first version.

But, in those days, people wrote copy longhand, with a pen.

Then they gave it to the printers to set.

But the printers accidentally put the comma after the first word, "Fruit", instead of after the second word, "plants".

No-one spotted it.

So that’s how the 1872 US Tariff Act passed into law.

That tiny comma changed the whole purpose of the act.

The purpose of the act was to impose a tariff (tax) on anyone importing fruit into the USA.

So American farmers could sell their fruit cheaper and have an advantage.

The only exception to this rule was fruit plants, which were needed for planting new orchards and groves.

So fruit plants were supposed to be exempt from the tax.

But fruit wasn’t.

By moving that comma one word to the left, they changed the tax exemption from "fruit plants" to "fruit".

Now anyone could import all the fruit they wanted, free of tax.

They could sell it cheaper than American farmers.

Which is exactly what they did, until the law could be changed and the act reprinted.

But, in the 1870s, that took time and, meanwhile, people imported and sold fruit by the ton.

And the US government had to hand back a million dollars in taxes. 

A million dollars then was the equivalent of $40 million now. 

That’s an expensive comma.

All because someone didn’t do their job properly.

Because they relied on someone else to do it.

That’s why I expect copywriters, and art directors, to be really thorough, to know every detail of their job really well.

But I may be alone in this.

Recently, I was talking to a young creative team.

I asked them who was the art director and who was the copywriter.

They said: "Oh, we each do both."

I asked how they did copy and art direction together.

Did they each type on one side of the keyboard?

They said: "No, when we’ve had the idea, we just give it to the head of design and he puts it together and does the rest."

So that’s what we’re hiring.

Art directors who don’t do layouts and copywriters who don’t write.

That explains a lot.

Dave Trott’s new book, One Plus One Equals Three, is out now