Top 5 Proofreading Gaffes Of All Time


English historian and novelist James Anthony Froude once noted, “Instruction does not prevent wasted time or mistakes; and mistakes themselves are often the best teachers of all.”

We are all human and prone to error. Some mistakes are easy to fix, while others may teach a very costly lesson. 

In our age of instantaneous connectivity, the wrong words – even accidentally typed – can reach a global audience (or a judge!) with lasting and often expensive consequences.

Read on for the top 5 proofreading gaffes of all time.

Cheap ticket to paradise

Imagine sitting in the snow and cold of Toronto and spotting an advertised airfare to warm and beachy Cyprus for a mere $39. You’d likely book the flight and as many as 2,000 people did in 2006. Alitalia Airlines realized its very costly typo on a travel website only after it was published. The business class flights should have been marked $3,900. The Italian airline initially tried to cancel the incorrectly priced tickets, but faced a public relations backlash and was forced to honor the bookings to protect its reputation. It resulted in a financial loss that exceeded $7.72 million.

Trial and error

When a Newport Beach, California attorney saw an advertisement for a 1995 Jaguar listed at $26,000, he decided to buy the luxury car. The salesperson and later, the sales manager, refused to sell the car for less than $37,016, stating the advertisement in the Daily Pilot newspaper was incorrect. The attorney sued Lexus of Westminster, accusing the car dealership of breach of contract, fraud, and negligence.

The attorney originally won the suit, but the dealership appealed the decision and the case went all the way to California Supreme Court. That court ruled that if an honest mistake is made in an ad, car dealers may refuse to sell vehicles at the incorrect price. The loss to the dealership would have been $12,000 if the Jaguar was sold at the advertised price and it’s safe to say that they probably spent more in attorney’s fees. But language in the decision now protects sellers when there is proof of an honest mistake.

Comma again?

PSA: Hyphens and commas are not always interchangeable. Such a tiny error cost United States taxpayers $2 million in the mid-19th century. (Today, that would equate to more than $50 million.) The U.S. Tariff Act featured a list of items exempt from tax when brought into the United States. The tax amounted to approximately 20 percent of a good’s purchase price.

In the 1872 revision of the act, what should have defined tropical “fruit-plants” as exempt, instead exempted tropical “fruit, plants.” This meant that all tropical fruits and plants (and not simply fruit-plants) were exempt from the tariff. It took two years for the text to be altered. Some call it the “most expensive typo in legislative history.”

Even rocket scientists make mistakes

In the 1960s, NASA was a very new organization. An absent hyphen from an instruction manual caused a huge problem for one satellite and the agency. Mariner 1 cost $18.5 million to build and was intended to fly by Venus. Instead, the unmanned probe veered off-course after launch and was deliberately detonated 293 seconds later. The crash prompted an official investigation and testimony before Congress during which NASA admitted the error to be the “omission of a hyphen in coded computer instructions in the data-editing program [which led to the] transmission of incorrect guidance signals to the spacecraft.”

Thou shall sin

Robert Barker, 17th-century printer, might never have been historically notable except for one major error in his printing. The King James Bible is one of the most influential and important books ever published. Barker’s versions were later deemed the “Wicked Bible” because he inadvertently left out the all-important word, “not” in the Seventh Commandment. It instead read, “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Parliament fined the London publisher 3,000 pounds and some readers were likely very confused.

Prevention is good medicine

A justifiable reason for an error does not always mean it will be easily excused. Mistakes that occur when staff are small, stretched too thin or overworked don’t get a free pass. Technology can’t solve the problem; Spellcheck is not clever enough to detect the subtle nuances in language (and would have failed NASA and Barker).

With the potential injury to finances and reputation, it may be wise to invest in an extra set of eyes and give yourself some peace of mind. Instead of trying to recover from a loss, be proactive and consider hiring an on-demand Hire an Esquire attorney to help review your work.