Discovered in an 1928 issue of John O’ London’s is an anecdote illustrating the importance of punctuation in a legal document.
‘Solicitors in their private practice have evolved a language of their own, which weird though it may be, is seldom open to the reproach of obscurity. Very wisely they discard punctuations almost completely. They know that the omission or use of a comma in a legal document can be dangerous. A comma once cost the United States Government £400,000. It was nearly fifty years ago that the United States Congress in drafting a Tariff Bill enumerated in one section the articles to be left free of duty. Amongst these were “all foreign fruit-plants “. The copying clerk in his wisdom removed the hyphen and substituted for it a comma, making the clause read “all foreign fruit, plants, etc “. It took a year to rectify the error, and during that period all oranges, bananas, grapes, and other foreign fruits were admitted free of duty with the big loss to the State already mentioned…’
The loss to the Revenue of that hyphen would be the equivalent of around £20 million today. I wonder if the clerk was fired. We at Jot HQ would love to hear of other costly clerical errors.
On June 12th 1913, sixty years before the UK joined the EEC, and 103 years before it voted to leave it, The New Age, a well-known Socialist weekly, published a prescient article by one of its frequent contributors, Joseph Finn (1865 – 1945), a former tailor who, according to one source, became ‘one of the first Jewish labour leaders in Britain.’ In it Finn put forward a radical economic alternative to the political vision of a ‘United States of Europe’ that Sir Max Waechter had outlined in a recent issue of The Fortnightly Review.
On the eve of a possible war between Britain and Germany Waechter had argued that there were no political, racial or dynastic reasons why the two nations should not join as the prime movers of a larger European Union. Finn, however suggested that the basis for any such federation should not be political, but economic. Germany and Britain were in direct economic competition with one another and therefore were unlikely to cooperate within a proposed political union, but might even go to war in furtherance of their own economic ambitions. Finn continued:
‘If nations were not afraid of competition they would not surround themselves with tariff walls. England is no exception, though she is a Free Trade country. English free trade originated in a period when England was the workshop of the world. On the one hand, she had no rivals; on the other hand, she stood in need of cheap food for her factory hands. Such economic conditions were the natural mother of the political institution of Free Trade. Now, having lost her monopoly in manufacture, and she being compelled to face formidable rivals, we see growing up a political tendency towards Protection. Thus we see clearly the truth of the sociological law, that the political structure of society is the outcome of the economic structure.’ Continue reading