As I sit in front of my computer proofreading this feature on Business Writing for the 8th time, I am growing more and more frustrated as I question every ellipsis, comma, and period that writing rightI type. With the wide array of subjects in the world of business development and professional growth, I tend to lean towards covering topics like leadership and stress management since I find them to be a little more relatable than those of punctuation and grammar.

But as you are well aware, the world of business development involves many more topics besides leadership skills and stress management. As our company name implies – Elevate Business Development Group  (Elevate BDG) – I consider it my responsibility to cover a multitude of topics that are essential in developing your business. So, here I go…writing about writing and, hopefully, writing it right!

The building blocks of any writing, whether for business or social purposes, are words. Failure to use words properly can affect the overall impact of your prose. Once we have a basic understanding of how to use words, we need to know how to put them together with the use of proper punctuation and sentence/paragraph structure. Pretty straight forward, if you ask me.  In essence, it is,  yet there are so many common writing mistakes being made on a regular basis, resulting in significant financial costs to businesses.

The case of the $5M comma

The far most interesting – and definitely the most costly punctuation error to date – is the case of the missing Oxford comma. In February 2018 the missing comma cost a company in Maine $5 million in unpaid overtime. The controversial comma came into a debate when the truck drivers of Oakhurst Dairy claimed they were owed unpaid overtime. The company believed the employees did not qualify for the overtime pay because of the way Maine’s labor law was written, but boy were they wrong!  In a BIG win for the working class, and a costly oversight for the big guys, one missing comma cost the company millions and the truck drivers were awarded the overtime pay they deserved.

For those of you that do not know what an Oxford comma is a comma that precedes “and” or “or” in a list of three or more words in a sentence. (For example: “I like cherries, candy, and ice cream!”)

Maine’s labor laws say that anyone who works more than 40 hours a week is entitled to 1.5X pay, except for certain exemptions including:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce;
  2. Meat and fish product; and
  3. Perishable foods

Note the lack of the comma in between the words “packing for shipping” and “distribution” in the first sentence of this law. The suit argued that since “packing for shipment” and “distribution” was not separated by a comma making them a single activity; not two separate activities. “Sure, we distribute it — but we don’t pack it.”

While a case like this leaves no question about the costly impact of incorrect punctuation, there are other harrowing statistics that substantiate the significant cost incurred to businesses as a result of improper writing. According to a study of 547 business people who write at least two hours per week (in addition to email) by Josh Bernoff at the Harvard Business Review, incorrect business writing is costing American companies a whopping $4 BILLION a year.

According to Bernoff:

          “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more. According to my analysis, America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income.”

Sure, this is not quite as concrete as the 5 million dollar Oxford comma, but the point is, our writing skills are costing our companies money, and when it comes to business writing training, the proof is in the numbers. Effective business writing skills can help you win that million-dollar contract, while poor business writing can never be undone. The digital revolution has increased the speed at which we communicate, but this should never be at the expense of proper business writing.  Always take the time to proofread that email before you hit send!

Business writing requires deep thought, time, and focus…and sometimes a little practice, which is why we are now offering a combo deal on Business Writing and Presentation Skills seminars with Elevate BDG!


This article was written by Tara Scheing of Elevate Business Development Group. Tara has been managing the digital marketing and writing articles on professional development & business training with Elevate BDG since it’s inception and lives in Southern Oregon with her husband and two young sons. You can connect with her on LinkedIn at or contact her directly at