Spelling and grammar DO count, according to consumers

Posted on August 15, 2013 8:40 am by | Content | Social Media

Get your spelling and grammar right

(c) Can Stock Photo
I was in a meeting to discuss marketing plans for a new organization. The founder of the company had already developed some collateral he was showing off. I noticed immediately a problem with the punctuation. When I pointed out the error, I was dismissed. Nobody cares, I was told.

It’s disconcerting for a grammar geek to be confronted with a cavalier attitude toward language. Watching the shift to real-time digital communication hasn’t made me any happier. New media properties seem wholly unconcerned with proofreading, popular social media personalities don’t know the difference between your and you’re, and even long-standing mainstream publishers, in their haste to be speedy, seem to be fine with an increased incidence of typos, misused words and grammar/spelling/punctuation gaffes. And don’t get me started on the errors posted by community managers and other stewards of brands online.

So it is with a certain amount of sanctimonious glee that I am able to point out that customers don’t like spelling and grammar mistakes. According to one survey, poor spelling and grammar is the transgression most likely to damage consumer opinion of a brand in social media.

Disruptive Communications asked 1,003 UK consumers what they hate about brands they follow in the social space. All the answers produced enthusiastic agreement from me. Nearly 25% said posts and updates are too salesy. Nearly 13% said posting too often was an irritant (although 7.2% didn’t like brands that failed to post often enough). And all those tweets brands send out in an attempt to be funny? Trying too hard to provoke a chuckle rankles 12.5% of respondents.

What consumers hate about your brand online
Source: MediaBistro

But at the top of the list is poor spelling or grammar, which rankles 42.5% of the respondents, almost twice the next most annoying behavior. And lest you think that only older fuddy-duddies sniff at a misplaced modifier or a misused apostrophe, it ranked as the second most disturbing behavior among 18-24-year-olds. (Companies that don’t post often enough was number one with the younger demographic, but only by 1.2 percentage points.)

Gender didn’t make a difference, either. Bad grammar and misspelling bothered 38.9% of women and 39.6% of men.

Despite the clear preference among consumers for correct language use, brands seem fine tossing off mistake-riddled posts and updates.

Of course, it’s important not to become too pedantic given that language is an ever-changing thing. There seems to be some buzz right now over the use of literally, as in “I was literally jumping out of my skin.” For some of us, that usage would be acceptable only if a skinless body stood above the skin he or she had shed moments before. But the figurative use of literally is even listed in Merriam-Webster: “Used to acknowledge that something is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to express strong feeling.” Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo covered this confounding acceptable use on their Slate podcast, Lexicon Valley, and Kristin Piombino wrote about it for Ragan.com.

But creative or risky use of language is fine, as long as the writer knows that’s what she’s doing. James Joyce stomped on the conventions of grammar, after all, but he did so knowing full well what the rules were. The mistakes that pepper brands’ online content aren’t like that. They’re just mistakes, the result of writers who don’t know better and/or a failure to apply any kind of editing to copy before it’s posted.

Would it really kills us to use the tools of our trade correctly? It’s not hard to learn the basics, or to check your usage if you’re unsure.

Based on the Disruptive Communications study, you can’t just shrug it off by labeling misuse as “authentic” or proclaiming that social media doesn’t require attention to formality.

It’s pissing off your fans. That should be enough to make you want to start making sure you’re getting it right.



  • 1."Nearly 25% said posts and updates are to salesy."

    Really? TO salesy and not TOO salesy?

    In an article about the importance of proper grammar?

    Mac Eagan | August 2013 | Atlanta

  • 2.Thanks for the catch, Mac. As a sole practitioner, and unlike a brand, I don't have anybody who can proofread and the occasional slip does get by, particularly mistakes that aren't highlighted by spellcheck. Readers are often gracious enough to point them out so I can fix them.

    Shel Holtz | August 2013

  • 3.Believe it or not, Shel, I am actually not a troublemaker (most of the time). I forwarded your article to my boss, who sent out an email a few months ago to all employees about the importance of taking the time to proofread and double-check all written correspondence, especially emails. Although your article focuses on social media, the overall principle still applies - people notice grammar mistakes and it influences their opinion of your brand.

    Mac Eagan | August 2013 | Atlanta

  • 4.Great post, Shel. It takes time and effort to use correct spelling and proper grammar and the "Say it NOW!" philosophy does nothing to help the situation. We who still cherish grammar and spelling just soldier on against that growing tide of "Who cares?" As far as brands (and the mainstream media) go, they've fired all the copy editors who might catch the slips. (To much of luxury for the bottom line, I guess.)

    Keep up the good work.

    Paul Sevensky | August 2013 | Pennsylvania

  • 5.Believe me, Mac, I've been much harder on others whose spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors I've caught! No worries.

    I've always been skeptical of anyone who believes they don't need an editor. (An editor I once worked for told me there was a Sports Illustrated writer, Dan Greenberg, whose contract precluded anybody editing his copy...and his copy was worse off for it.) In my career, I have learned more about good writing from reading the edits good editors have made to my copy than from writing teachers. The inability to have a fresh pair of eyes check my copy before I post it is one of the biggest drawbacks of working for myself. As I say, though, my readers tend to help out!

    Shel Holtz | August 2013

  • 6.Skitt's Law states “any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself” :P

    Anj | February 2014 | India

  • 7.I'm reading this post two years hence. I don't see the misuse of "To" (fourth paragraph, second line) that Mac Eagan is referencing, unless Mr. Holtz re-posted this article and corrected the sentence. I read it to be grammatically correct.

    Great piece, Mr. Holtz. Thank you for posting it. Let us soldier on!

    Gary Fletcher | November 2015 | Suncoast, FL

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