Two words may cost $548 million? Find out why

Words are powerful, but rarely can you put a specific dollar value on them. Here’s a case where two words have put a chunk of change at stake: How about half a billion dollars?

Earlier this month, the Santa Clara Valley Water District in Northern California turned in a ballot proposal to put a $548 million tax measure before voters. When the group submitted the text of the proposal, it was 77 words. Unfortunately, proposal summaries can be no more than 75 words.

The Water District rushed an updated version to elections officials. The meeting to approve the new terms, however, was not publicized far enough in advance to meet requirements of California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act.  As a result, the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association is threatening to sue unless the district pulls the measure off the ballot.

Linda LeZotte, the chairwoman of the Water District, told reporters that losing the proposal would be devastating for the district. “We were not changing the essence of the measure,” LeZotte said, “We were removing two innocuous words that mistakenly put us over the word count. It was a minor technicality.” The Water District’s full statement can be read here.

John Roeder, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association, felt otherwise. “We believe it’s a violation,” he said, “If they say, ‘OK, we’re sorry, we’ll take it off the ballot,’ then we won’t do anything more. But if they tell us, no, they’re right, then we’ll decide what steps to take after that.”

So what were the two offending words that may cost Santa Clary Valley Water District more than half a billion dollars? The two words that the Water District cut from the proposal in order to lower its word count to 75?  They were: “as” and “no.” (that is, the abbreviation for “number”). That’s it. “As” and “number.”

Sometimes words are more valuable than you expect. Can you think of other situations where semantic issues have cost you or others a hefty sum? Let us know, below.


  1. ` -  October 7, 2014 - 8:02 am


  2. Connie -  May 19, 2013 - 9:41 am

    That’s just…sad…….

  3. Anonymous -  April 17, 2013 - 4:51 am

    As, no. Come on people, where is my half a million dollars?

  4. Jonathan -  November 11, 2012 - 10:39 pm

    It is a joke guys come on do not fall for that trick i am serious IT IS A BIG FAT LIE

  5. staticGenerator -  October 16, 2012 - 9:36 pm

    ChrisB either:

    1) works for the government, or
    2) is a democrat

  6. ms. B is awesome!!! -  October 11, 2012 - 11:13 am

    @languagelover: are you in Ms B’s class??? She always says that!!!!

    This whole story is bizazrre!!!! i don’t see how two lilliputian(Ms. B’s method is working!!! WOW word alert!) words can make such a huge difference. BIZARRE!!!!

  7. Jeanna -  September 18, 2012 - 8:45 pm

    Or would it be “semantics are”? Not sure.

  8. Jeanna -  September 18, 2012 - 8:44 pm

    Semantics is, not the difference, but the distinction between the words “difference” and “distinction.” In my words, that’s an example of semantics.
    But two words costing over half a billion dollars? Ridiculous.

  9. Suji -  September 17, 2012 - 1:25 pm

    @Free Soil Party,
    I agree with you because I too took typing classes. My word count exactly the same as yours…

    Thank you Free Soil Party …

  10. gab -  September 16, 2012 - 4:01 pm

    i don`t think that is a lot of money ………………………………just kiddin`

  11. Bobbi Standish -  September 3, 2012 - 7:01 am

    It seems obvious to me that the two words that may cost them the ballot and vote are not “as” and “no’” , but “we’re sorry” ! Eating some humble pie hurts only a little and is very clearing to the system.

  12. Terry -  September 1, 2012 - 1:30 pm

    Politics? Presidential Elections? By the people, for the people, with the people? HIlarious! As if the government is for, by, and with the people! Can you imagine that? Ha ha ha… funny…

  13. Libster -  September 1, 2012 - 5:44 am

    Wow! 2 measly words can cost that much??

  14. lulu -  August 31, 2012 - 8:47 pm

    wow that’s crazy!Just two formidable words are able to produce that HUGE sum of money!

  15. Erica -  August 31, 2012 - 4:38 pm

    That is a lot of money, and pretty cool.

  16. someone -  August 31, 2012 - 3:27 pm

    people should really be careful about money and how they deal with it. i mean it’s not like it grows on trees.

  17. Paul -  August 31, 2012 - 12:46 am

    Two other short words have cost much more — throughout history. “I do.”

  18. Tom M -  August 30, 2012 - 9:42 pm

    It does seem silly on the surface, two small words made all this difference. But, it’s reasonable that there will be “a limit” to the number of words. Once a limit is imposed, there is now “just barely over” the limit. Avoiding having a limit leaves one open to proposals with an unwieldy length.

  19. James -  August 30, 2012 - 7:08 pm

    No wonder why we can’t get anything done in America, we’re worrying about two petty words instead of actually solving issues. This is pitiful, congratulations on getting nowhere guys…

  20. Language Lover -  August 30, 2012 - 1:55 pm

    All of this talk and nobody mentioned that proper grammar saves lives, too! Consider the difference between “Come and eat, grandma!” and “Come and eat grandma!” :)

  21. Fashonista -  August 30, 2012 - 1:35 pm

    some of these comments are a little long….. but other than that, awesome story!!!!!!!!!

  22. Free Soil Party -  August 30, 2012 - 11:10 am

    Call me old school because I took typing class in high school and not keyboarding, but I thought “one word” was equal to 5 key strokes so 75 words equals 375 keystrokes. As + no. = 5 key strokes maybe 7 with a space after each word. But the point is if they are counting words like “as” to be one word, they are wrong. Antidisestablishmentarianism may look like one word but in typing it is actually 28 letters making it almost 6 words.

  23. Eyewitness -  August 29, 2012 - 4:15 pm


    I appreciate your frankness, both encouragment and constructive criticism. I have on many occasions wished the HOT WORD BLOG offerred participants a spell checker to proof their comments before publication in the forum. I am frequently bedeviled by spelling errors which I notice only after my comment has published (and thereupon is beyond reach of my wish to correct it). I repeatedlyproof my comments in draft, and yet still receive these disappointing surprises.

    One explanation which I feel has merit is my enthusiasm for Dictionary.com subject matter tends to skew my own proofreading process, and therefore I read as I expect that I have stated rather than as I have actually written. Undoubtedly, a second, related liability is that I think faster than I can type, so of course I am bound to be preoccupied with the substance of my exposition, less so with the presentation of my points.

    Incidentally, isn’t this website a treasure trove? Best wishes

  24. ghjtw -  August 29, 2012 - 1:59 pm

    what the heck

  25. RJ McGillicutty -  August 29, 2012 - 11:42 am

    With the location of the proposal being from the Santa Clara Valley, California, I thought the two words were, “As if.”

  26. john -  August 29, 2012 - 9:27 am

    We’re not talking about common sense, or any kind of reasoning here. This is the government, and the law. The law is clear – 75 words, and no more. I don’t know how the law treats symbols, so I don’t know if “#” would reduce the word count (“%” would be two words – “per cent”) So, the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association is right. The law also is clear on the amount of time period for public comment. So, the water district has only two options: withdraw the ballot proposal (and run a special election later) or, keep the issue on the ballot (resulting in an expensive court case which it will ultimately lose) Both options will be costly to the district’s customers. The proposal summary should have been carefully checked BEFORE submission. Contracts have been ruled invalid for sillier reasons.

  27. john -  August 29, 2012 - 9:18 am


  28. yanogator -  August 29, 2012 - 7:13 am

    @ SpellerMan
    It’s good that you don’t call yourself GrammarMan, after writing “… of which they have absolutely NO clue how to spell.” In English, we spell words, we don’t spell of words, so the “of” in your sentence is definitely wrong.

    Also, the “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” story is about a panda, not a koala.

  29. Mpgod -  August 29, 2012 - 5:13 am

    I dont get it

  30. Ray -  August 29, 2012 - 4:33 am

    1. Your URL did not provide the full statement of their text, so anything said on this column is of insignificant import to California and the general world…

    2. Word counts have been the bane of students, for decades, Especially in California, if nowhere else, for California students are well-taught…

    3. Or, was, that, word-counts, have been… or, was, that, well taught…

    4. And therein lies the rub– They might have resubmitted a repunctuated version with inserted hyphenations– that’ll usually pass the wordcounter…

    5. Another ‘trick’ is to the instant a resubmittal is deemed necessary: open the URL and don’t logoff till the resubmittal is completed– will also usually pass the timemark, or is that time-mark or time mark or log off…

    6. On the penalty side, They deserve it: Santa Clara is home to Yahoo in Sunnyvale, who years-ago gave us too-short notice of the closure of our file-manager’s tidy 10MB for keeping ‘important files received by email’– without, returning, the files, to e-mail: which was by-then nearing GB’s…

    7. On-top that, now-Governor Brown was operating out of Santa Clara…

    8. But, on the ‘pœnalty’ side, there’s no call for believing their old-system will cost them $548 million: That’s called, “an opinion,” not a judgment…

    9. So, Thank you, for the interesting tidbit: Let us stand back and give the Big-One, room to fall-off into the ocean….

    10. After all, What’s December 21, 2012, for… if not a tighty-up date…?!

  31. geneth -  August 29, 2012 - 12:59 am

    wow!!!!! amazing!!!

  32. SpellerMan -  August 28, 2012 - 8:36 pm

    PS: @Eyewitness… I appreciated the accuracy you brought to the spelling of YOUR story. I’ve worked in similar capacities myself; in one case, with a pharmaceutical firm, for which spelling and grammatical accuracy were of critical importance.
    However, you missed the word “gauge”, misspelling it as “guage”.
    We could probably assume that was just a typing juxtaposition by too-fast fingers?

  33. SpellerMan -  August 28, 2012 - 8:32 pm

    Wow… it’s astounding how few words actually get spelled correctly in exchanges like these… it’s like reading a bunch of letters from third graders. People who can barely spell their names are attempting three and four-syllable words of which they have absolutely NO clue how to spell.
    The funniest typo was the guy complaining the state had funded “eductaion” with a lottery! Another lottery fail, apparently.
    [Sir: the word is spelled "education"]

    As for Ram’s example, above, it’s actually a moot point, since all lists (such as A, B and C) have commas after each item/element right up to the last one, where the “and” divides the final two elements… equally. There would be no legal conflict if a lawyer with the most basic grasp of English grammar were intrepreting the sentence.
    A better example of the damage a misplaced comma can inflict is to check out the book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, where the title is humorously explained on the back. Koala bears CAN be funny…. really.

  34. MONEY/MORE | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  August 28, 2012 - 10:49 am

    [...] ‘Money/#More’ or less the Meaning of Life as presently defined. — The Balderdash of Politics and Business so refined — with some technicality deciding the future of thirsty souls. — Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater in a Nation — No — As Holes — the source of many problems — Competing for some service — Where the Public be the damned — at the Mercy — Should be nervous — Of the self proclaimed importance of the meaning of Log-Jammed. –>>L.T.Rhyme [...]

  35. Ram Mungamuru -  August 28, 2012 - 9:16 am

    Commas and punctuation bring back to mind the good old story where a wealthy man in his will bequeaths his property “equally between his sons A, B and C.” Upon the death of their father A claims in court for half and not a third of the property contending that the comma indicates his father’s intention that A gets half of the estate, with the remaining half to be shared equally by B and C.

  36. dlo -  August 28, 2012 - 8:14 am

    dats crazy but i wish i had dat money

  37. Eyewitness -  August 27, 2012 - 10:32 pm

    @James B.

    How did you ever come by your knowledge of this fascinating anecdote? Thank you for sharing it. The story compellingly speaks to me.

    I would have found as the regulators did. Separated by commas, the clause is a parenthetic qualification and, as such, by definition of parentheses, is stated in aside or as an “interruption.”

    I marvel at “contract-ese.” As a systems analyst within a major financial institution, it was for a time my responsibility to evaluate prospective vendor software and equipment as well as the associated service agreements and to summarize selected contractual fine points as assets or liabilities to my employer, somewhat like being the law clerk to a high court justice. “Selected” in this context means those contractual obligations I chose to red-flag. Just such elements of construction–and loopholes–were my daily fare. I found it rewarding and challenging. The few times I had to consult with the legal department to guage the exposure (risk to my employer as a signee) embedded in a service agreement, I found they had little to add to my existing comprehension. These things can be very intricate. I suppose being a systems analyst bespeaks my predisposition to puzzle solving. Mazes can be made out of words, too, not just hedges!

  38. RMac -  August 27, 2012 - 10:18 pm

    Santa Clara County isn’t a pleasant place to live now. The politicians have run this area into the ground. Jobs are are consistantly leaving this area and costs continue to rise. This is forcing more and more people to leave the area or become homeless. The gap between the haves and have nots continues to widen at an alarming rate with no solutions in sight so when I read something like this it stikes me as business as usual. They will keep destroying the economic infrastructure until there is nothing left.

  39. James B -  August 27, 2012 - 8:13 pm

    It’s not only words that are so important. Grammar and punctuation are just as important. In 2006, as the Canadian phone company, Rogers Communications found that out the hard way, when they lost a $1,000,000 contract with Bell Aliant over the 2nd comma in this sentence;

    “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

    Rogers thought the contract would last for 5 years and only the renewal could be stopped with 1 year’s notice but Aliant decided the contract allowed them to end a contract with 1 year’s notice at any time. The regulators ruled that under the rules of grammar, the 2nd comma meant that “and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms” was an interruption. Therefore the cancellation policy applied to the period of the contract, rather than the successive terms. If the 2nd comma was left out, the cancellation would have applied only to the successive terms. Bell were allowed out of the contract without penalty, costing Rogers $1 million in lease fees.

  40. Suji -  August 27, 2012 - 7:59 pm

    Yes, It is true words cost so much that we can not imagine…

    In 70′s South Indian Cinema history that happend. Two words in One song cost so much for the record company to produce LP records for that particular song.

    So, the record company asked the South Indian Greatest poet to cut some of two words from the song. He, the poet deniyed. So the record company and musicians took off two repeated words from the song and produced the record.

    Here the length of two words, not the count of the two words.

    In the old days, we had to pay by count of words to send a telegramm. So that, we had to shorten the sentence, but should understandable to the receiver. Otherwise, we had to pay a sum of money to send a telegramm.

  41. Chris -  August 27, 2012 - 3:28 pm

    I wish I had that kind of money… T.T

  42. Rebecca -  August 27, 2012 - 1:57 pm

    Semantics is a word thrown around too often. If our government (local, state, up etc.) is that petty, how can we expect them to properly represent us?

  43. adrianna daniels -  August 27, 2012 - 1:55 pm


  44. Ruth -  August 27, 2012 - 12:18 pm

    Chris B

    Don’t be such a bully. In case you didn’t notice, this article is written like a news story and is regarding a political issue that just so happens to hinge on two words. If we as readers are not free to leave our thoughts (whatever they might be), what gives you the right to leave yours??

  45. That's right -  August 27, 2012 - 12:15 pm

    Only in California! The heck with the gist of the law, let’s just sue people or drop something because there are two too many words it it. Can’t wait until I get out of this lame brained (Pelosi, Boxer, and Feinstein: go figger!) state.

  46. shameka king -  August 27, 2012 - 11:21 am

    i love money like that

  47. Tony -  August 27, 2012 - 11:11 am

    @chris b: ‘steal’ is precisely the word. It’s been over 50 years that my state began a lottery to pay for our kids’ eductaion and guess what? There’s never enough money! Guess where it goes? To hire janitors at over $100,000 per year as perks for union members. That is political. And don’t you dare start on me being anti-union. I grew up in a union family, my dad was a shop steward.

    ‘Steal” is precisely the word.

  48. Frank Martin -  August 27, 2012 - 10:34 am

    Like people, words are endowed with supreme good and evil. Words are powerful because they can trigger both rational and emotional responses. In the wrong ‘hands’ they can lead nations to war, famine and humiliation, but in the right ‘hands’, they transform and elevate our humanity.

  49. TETO -  August 27, 2012 - 10:11 am


  50. Ibis -  August 27, 2012 - 8:45 am

    Michael… Love your thoughts on this …so true! My mother always says “The ones who create the laws, create the lies”. In this case seems like those two words were a convenient mistake. Question is, for whom?

  51. StephenB -  August 27, 2012 - 8:11 am

    I like what ydnic and ChrisB both say. It doesn’t sound like a trick to extort money from the locality. And I’m not sure what Sabrina meant when she said gov’t should go get “real jobs.” Perhaps she thinks the gov’t is pointless, and that society should live in anarchy.

    However, I know that taxes are a funny thing in CA. Apparently voters get to vote on every thing, tax issues included. And knowing the general public, they are probably not inclined to say “I would like to pay more taxes, or continue paying taxes.” Thus, probably not many get passed. It seems a weird system to me, but I guess it makes the state more of a true democracy as opposed to a republic. Of course, if they want the state to be a democracy, then why do the elect people in the first place?

  52. Dalton -  August 27, 2012 - 7:58 am

    John, on the contrary, in California, I’m sure the person who wrote it got a raise and bonus

  53. goldenmarie2555 -  August 27, 2012 - 7:41 am

    I want the job of counting words.
    WOW, to be paid to make sure that all documents have the legal amount of words.
    That job has got to be AWESOME!

  54. Michael -  August 27, 2012 - 5:28 am

    Well it seems to me that the debate will continue…
    “As” a large “number” of your readers are obviously American citizens, they are not open to the suggestion that political corruption happens only in 3rd world countries.
    Be that “as” it may, the “number” of politicians who redirect funds under the counter, “number” in the thousands. “As” if politics was for the people, by the people and with the people…

  55. ydnic -  August 27, 2012 - 1:53 am

    Yep, words wield great power. Now combine two groups that have strongly differing intentions. You’re likely to hear the word, ‘semantics,’ tossed about freely, since semantics has become an excusatory word for those times that people wish to display disagreement without appearing to lose control.

    Some disagreements–like the one outlined in the above article between the Water District and the Taxpayers’ Association–have very little to do with words, and everything to do with the bottom-dollar (albeit a huge bottom-dollar!). It appears that human biology, along with all its strange desires and dislikes made the final decisions regarding those “two innocuous words.” Linguistics may eventually morph into a tool to assist each group with their biological stance, but according the article, words and word choices were irrelevant to some of the major players.


    Frankly, reverting the ‘no.’ to the ‘#’ sign should have cleared up one extra word. Although the ‘#’ sign has quite a history and lineage… at least here in the States, we do use this symbol frequently to denote ‘number.’ As in #1, #675, etc.

    So, if–on the first proposal–the Water District had drawn a black line through ‘no.,’ and wrote ‘#’ above it, that should count as one less word, without any loss of meaning. This is assuming the Taxpayers’ Association is not counting symbols as words also. If so, any proposal regarding money must be a nightmare! For example, if ‘=,’ ‘%,’ ‘$,’ ‘+,’ ‘-,’ and ‘#,’ are each counted as a word, I can’t imagine many spaces left for any alpha-numeric characters. It’s simply a ridiculous arrangement required of proposal writers!

    So, now we are left with, ‘As.’ One word. Two letters. Seriously? I would be willing to bet that a ‘the,’ or an article such as, ‘a,’ or ‘an,’ could have been blacked out, again, without the proposal losing its intended message.

    Were I representing the Water District when the First Proposal was snubbed by the Taxpayers’ Association… I would have taken the ONE SHEET of paper, done exactly as I mentioned above… blacking out the ‘no.’ and writing a ‘#’ above it, then I would’ve found a ‘the,’ or another word that could easily be dropped, and blacked that word out. Then, perk up, smile and explain that there were TWO ‘very quick’ typo CORRECTIONS to the proposal I needed to complete before submitting it–immediately–not RE-Submitting it, just Submitting it a couple of moments late.

    BTW, if you take the time to read some of the correspondence between the two organizations, you’ll find that this proposal is an UPDATE of an accepted proposal from 2000. The original proposal voted into use will expire in the year 2016. This current proposal for 2012 will extend the expiration date.

    This is not a scam to create NEW TAXES or a sneaky tactic to increase the government’s revenue. It’s primarily a CONTINUATION of existing programs and policies that are currently being funded with taxpayer money, and have been since 2000.

    If the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association keeps this proposal off the ballot… let’s just say the Silicon Valley won’t be a pleasant place to live or work in after a couple of years. Duh.

  56. Rosemary -  August 27, 2012 - 1:52 am

    THAT’S CRAZY!!! I can’t believe they done that to them.HORRIBLE!!!

  57. ChrisB -  August 27, 2012 - 1:04 am

    Yeah, that’s the way, Sabrina –
    (1) let’s make a political issue out of this, it started as a trivial “factoid” on words, but you go girl, don’t let academic interest get in the way of a rant
    (2) government stealing from you, uh huh. “The Government” (well, in this case, it was a local authority, but let’s let that slide) “steals” “your” money in order to provide services. Without that money, they are going to have to do one or more of a anumber of other things (a) borrow, which will cost taxpayers more in the long run (b) just not provide services, meaning taxpayers will suffer in other ways (c) divert funds from other budget areas, see (b).

    Your local and every other government’s source and application of funds are published, publicly available documents. The way they spend their money is a matter of policy – if you don’t like it, vote for someone else. But “stealing”? As in, putting the money in their back pockets, going on tropical holidays and driving around in Cadillacs? I think the newspapers would have reported that by now.

  58. Sabrina -  August 27, 2012 - 12:19 am

    You go Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association! The government doesn’t need to steal any more of our money. If they want to increase revenue, then they can get real jobs like the rest of us.

  59. John -  August 26, 2012 - 10:11 pm

    That’s crazy! I bet the one who wrote that is not working for them anymore :)

  60. Chelsey M. -  August 26, 2012 - 8:36 pm

    Wow! That’s crazy! I love words and can’t believe two small words could cost you that.

    I have just begun writing online and have found that the way I place words in my articles can make a big difference as to whether my articles will be found by searchers. Spelling matters, too. Word choice also affects my pay on certain websites.

    So, yeah, word choice does matter, but I definitely don’t think it should’ve mattered in this case.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top