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Why bad spelling may just hit your bottom line

The hidden cost of those niggly little errors – and what you can do about them

[Image courtesy of Barry W at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Are you a Grammar Nazi?” asked somebody I connected with on WhatsApp, after I picked him up on a mistake.

I’ll have to way the options up, he’d written. I tried to resist the temptation, but failed. Weigh, surely? I replied, with a grinning emoticon.

He blamed it on predictive text, but I wasn’t all that convinced. And he followed it up with the question on my totalitarian learnings. 

I probably am a bit of a stickler for grammar, as well as spelling, punctuation and all the little details that separate bad writing from good. But then again, I have to be, as nobody’s going to pay me for copy that’s riddled with spelling mistakes and dodgy syntax.

You’d think it would be easy to get it right, with all of the technology we now have at our disposal. But even clever algorithms have their limitations, and mistakes can easily slip through the net – especially when you’re waying up the options.

Spelling it out

I was reminded of my friend’s slip-up when I started reading a fascinating book by linguist David Crystal.

If you’re a language geek like me, Crystal will need no introduction. He’s a prolific author who’s produced over 100 books on language in the last 50 years. And his latest, Spell it out: The singular story of English spelling, is compulsively readable.

Starting with a Christian scribe pondering over how to write down the unfamiliar sounds of Anglo-Saxon with a limited (Roman) alphabet, it takes us all the way up to present day via the Norman Conquest, Caxton and the arrival of printing, Shakespeare and Noah Webster (who’s the reason Americans now write harbor, center and traveling).

For a linguist, Crystal is pretty relaxed about spelling change: more of a describer, and less of a prescriber. Unlike some merchants of doom, he thinks textspeak is a sign that language mastery is alive and well.

But beyond the intellectual interest of knowing why -ough has so many pronunciations (through, tough, thorough, hiccough, though, cough), for me the book raised the more interesting question of why spelling is important in the world of marketing.

Does it matter if you get it right? And what’s the price of getting it wrong? Well here are just three considerations: 

  • Credibility: the web is a place where trust is everything, and there’s no shortage of people ready to take you for a ride. You really don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. Remember that on the web, your copy is representing you, so it’s important to get it right.  
  • Search engine ranking. Misspell a word consistently on your website, and you may just see your SEO suffer, for two reasons. The most obvious is that people aren’t searching for your misspelling. But more importantly, Google and other search engines may penalise you for getting it wrong, as misspellings can be an indicator of a site that’s less than trustworthy.
  • Lost revenue. Even when people do find you, that’s not the end of the story. One entrepreneur found that a single misspelling cut online sales by half. Fraud and phishing are so widespread nowadays that misspellings may just set alarm bells ringing – much in the same way that an insecure connection (http, rather than https) does.

Sweet success

Of course spelling errors can happen on both sides: your clients are just as prone as you are to slip up. And when they do, you may well be able to anticipate – and even capitalise – on it.

I regularly receive calls and emails from people looking to copyright a product or idea. But that’s something best left to lawyers. And so to avoid confusion, and reduce the number of enquiries, I added a page to my site explaining the difference between copyright and copywriting.

Bathroom.com took it one step further, when they realised that lots of people were searching for ‘bathroom sweets’. They acquired the domain www.bathroomsweets.com and redirected it to a special section of their website that has a distinctly chocolatey feel – complete with photo of an edible bathtub.

With gentle good humour, they explained the difference between ‘sweets’ and ‘suites’ and guided people to the destination they needed. A stroke of creative genius (unlike Topshop, whose ‘Shakespere’ t-shirt earned it online ridicule).

So spelling does matter, and it could just affect your bottom line, for better or worse.

And what are my recommendations? Print out your copy. Read it with a pen in your hand, guiding you through every word. And always take a break to get some distance and see things clearly. 

Crystal clearly.