Spelling and grammar do matter, according to consumers

If you don’t think the public at large cares about your lack of editorial diligence, you’re wrong.

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 immediately noticed 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/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 percent said posts and updates are too “salesy.” Nearly 13 percent said posting too often was an irritant (although 7.2 percent didn’t like brands that failed to post often enough). And all those tweets that brands send out in an attempt to be funny? Trying too hard to provoke a chuckle rankles 12.5 percent of respondents.

Source: MediaBistro

At the top of the list is poor spelling or grammar, which rankles 42.5 percent of respondents, almost twice that of the next most annoying behavior. 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- to 24-year-olds. (Companies that don’t post often enough was No. 1 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 percent of women and 39.6 percent of men.

Despite the clear preference among consumers for correct language use, brands seem fine tossing out 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.

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.

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 kill 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.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self.

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