The Fatal Punctuation Mark:
How a Single Comma Made the Difference Between
Life and Death

Russian Czarina Maria Fyodorovna reportedly once saved the life of a man by transposing a single comma in a warrant signed by her husband, Alexander III (1845-1884), exiling a man to death in Siberia. 

On the bottom of the warrant, the czar had written: “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” 

The Czarina changed the punctuation so that the instructions read instead as follows: “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.” The man was set free. 

Punctuation is usually not a matter of life and death — but it certainly does affect the meaning of a sentence, which is the intended lesson of this anecdote. 

Note:  Though the use of the comma in the Czar’s original warrant is not correct according to the standards of contemporary American English (which would call for a dash or a colon), it was correct according to the conventions of the Russian language, which, like many others, allows for looser usage of punctuation than English.