I’m compulsive. I want to edit everything I see and hear. It doesn’t matter if it’s copy on a cereal box or song lyrics on the radio. (Why does John Mellencamp sing, “I cannot forget from where it is that I come from“? That extra “from” has bothered me for 30 years.)
Typos and incorrect grammar in emails drive me insane. (Nothing more embarrassing than responding to someone’s rant on Facebook and discovering a typo in what I posted.)
Imagine: Some people don’t even notice typos!
Many people don’t care about, or even notice, such things. Two researchers at the University of Michigan—Julie Boland, a cognitive psychologist specializing in language comprehension, who shares my obsession, and Robin Queen, a sociolinguist who doesn’t— wanted to find out why. FREE GUIDE:10 ways to improve your writing today. Download now.
The pair uncovered an earlier study in which college students vetted a potential new colleague on two versions of the same email—one of which was filled with errors. They also found another researcher at UM had studied how spelling errors in online peer-to-peer loan requests affected getting a loan. (The writers of error-strewn messages were perceived as less conscientious, intelligent and trustworthy and were less likely to get a loan.)
So that’s why I didn’t get that job!
Boland and Queen added a personality test that measured five traits: extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness and neuroticism.
Their study asked participants to judge 12 email responses to an ad for a housemate, and rate the senders as potential housemates on traits including intelligence, friendliness or laziness.
There were three versions of each message (a total of 36 different emails). One version included some typos, one contained words people commonly confuse, such as “there” for “their,” which the researchers call “grammos,” and the third was error-free.
The recipients were adults of various ages and levels of education, factors which had no bearing on how recipients perceived the writing errors. Nor did recipients’ use of electronic media. What mattered was the recipient’s personality type.
Hopelessly neurotic? Fine. It doesn’t make you more judgmental.
People who scored low on agreeability were more bothered by the grammos. And people who scored low on extraversion were more bothered by both typos and grammos. (That’s me.) The recipients’ level of neuroticism was irrelevant.
The college-student participants who were heavy users of electronic media were less sensitive to errors, as were those who also claimed to spend time reading for pleasure.
If you’re conversant with the common texting and tweeting abbreviations (lol, btw, wtf, etc.) and alphanumeric combinations (h8, 2day), grammar and spelling become increasingly irrelevant, at least in electronic communication.
Boland and Queen caution that they studied a small sample and that their subjects’ perceptions were based on the fact that the writer of the emails was unknown to them. The short email was all they knew about the sender.
Surprise: Your friends make allowances for your carelessness.
So someone who knows you will be more forgiving of your email errors. They already have an opinion about how smart you are (or aren’t). Social media-savvy college students don’t care.
In business, where you likely communicate with strangers, or with clients who pay you to be intelligent and articulate, a perfect email is crucial.
One last piece of advice from a compulsive editor: spellcheck is great, but it’s no substitute for proofreading.
Bob Keane is the Editorial Director at JConnelly, a communications and marketing agency in New York. A version of this article first appeared on JConnelly’s blog.