Reading, writing and arithmetic or (the unintended consequences of missing punctuation in laws)


Geno Fragnito, MNCPA director of government relations | May 2019 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated April 29, 2019

All through school, students are taught that reading, writing and arithmetic are the foundation of their success now and for the future. You must master the basics in order to successfully break down and understand the complex.

Easy enough, right?

But, how many times did you hear a teacher say, possibly to you:
  • “You are missing a comma.”
  • “That semicolon is in the wrong place.”
  • “This sentence has a misplaced modifier.”
  • “Your decimal point is in the wrong place.”
At the time, it may have sounded like an overly critical teacher. How much of a problem can a missing or misplaced comma, or the wrong conjunction cause? Often, as experience has taught us, the result is insignificant and can be easily corrected.

Occasionally, an oversight or errors have a much greater impact, can be very expensive to correct and create uncertainty for the affected parties. 

Little mark, big repercussions

There are many examples from around the country, Minnesota included, where a misplaced comma or the wrong conjunction was discovered after legislation was passed. It’s not usually good news.

In 2016, then-Gov. Mark Dayton let a tax bill expire without his signature because of a one-word error. Who would have thought one word out of more than 117,000 words in a 277-page tax bill would be significant enough to bring down the entire tax bill? It did.

A section of the tax bill was drafted using “or” as the conjunction rather than using “and.” This mistake radically changed the meaning of the prosed legislation. Had the bill draft included “and,” the affected parties would have received the intended tax break of approximately $1.5 million. Instead, the bill draft included “or,” resulting in a tax break of more than $100 million. Certainly, the affected parties would have been very happy, but the state would have been left with a $100 million budget hole.

In February 2018, a missing Oxford comma created enough uncertainty that it was the deciding factor in a Maine court decision. The case focused on whether drivers for a family-owned dairy were entitled to time-and-a-half for distribution of perishable agricultural products. In this case, the missing comma resulted in the court ruling in favor of the delivery drivers and awarding them backpay of $5 million.

The delivery drivers’ attorney acknowledged that had the comma been included in the original statute, the meaning would have been clear and the drivers would not have had a case. The Maine Legislature has since amended the law to provide additional clarity, add the missing punctuation and change all commas to semicolons.

Scrutiny is necessary

An internet search returns many examples of misplaced or missing commas or decimal points, resulting in unintended consequences. Some of these cases date back to the late 1800s. Nearly all involved monetary compensation.    

Grammar isn’t the only concern when it comes to errant punctuation or decimal points; mistakes could easily occur on a financial statement or a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing report. Errors on these documents could affect the public’s confidence and have a rippling effect on the economy.

CPAs are known for their mastery of numbers, attention to detail, ability to interpret data and propensity to break down complex issues. These are skills that were developed on a strong core foundation developed through many years of schooling. These skills can also be used to help a legislator break down a complex tax bill into smaller segments that can be explained using current business experiences.

So, make sure when the opportunity arises, you put those foundational lessons in use for the benefit of legislators and the public at-large.

Get involved!

Do you want to put your skills to use to help legislators best understand the importance of their work and what specific bills might mean for Minnesotans? Connect with Geno to discuss opportunities.