Category: Blog

Are spelling mistakes bad for business?

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence on the web but – and I’ve checked this out – no academic research looking specifically and objectively at the relationship between linguistic accuracy on websites and consumer confidence. So, a few weeks ago I asked whether accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar on websites are good for business. This is how people responded to polls on SurveyMonkey, LinkedIn and Ecademy, and to the blog:

Do errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar undermine your confidence in a company’s website?

No, I wouldn’t notice 1

No. Errors like these don’t bother me. 2

Yes. But I’d still buy from the company. 22

Yes. I’d look somewhere else. 34

The results suggest that 9 out of 10 people lose confidence in a business when they find linguistic errors on its website, and that nearly 6 out of 10 would continue their search elsewhere. But, of course, this doesn’t tell the whole story – the numbers are relatively small, it’s not necessarily a representative sample and people are probably more likely to vote in a poll if something is important to them than if it isn’t. Interesting nevertheless, especially when you look at the reasons – most of them about why people think accuracy is important.

Accuracy doesn’t always make a difference

The only argument that, at least in some circumstances, accuracy doesn’t matter was that it depends on the service being offered. The examples given were plumbing and PR – if you were looking for a plumber it might not matter if the person offering the service could write accurately – it would be their plumbing skills you’d want to know about. If you were looking for PR services on the other hand, skills in language are likely to be significant. But, as someone else pointed out, good plumbing depends on good language skills, especially the ability to understand complex instructions and regulations.

The jury’s out

There were some comments where people were ambivalent. An intriguing one was that in the UK people are more tolerant of numerical errors than linguistic ones, that the British are likely to see mistakes in spelling and grammar as a ‘moral fault’. Someone else talked about intellectual snobbery and quoted American author Kurt Vonnegut’s warning against using semi-colons – these, he apparently said, did no more than demonstrate you’d been to college. Another said that sales may not be affected but the business’s image probably would be. And someone else drew a distinction between perceptions of well-known, trusted companies and unknown ones – tolerance for mistakes on company websites with an established good reputation would be greater. By implication, potential customers of a less well-known company would rely more on linguistic accuracy to know whether or not they could trust it.

Accuracy does matter

And then there were the comments – the majority – that were unequivocal about the importance of accuracy. In a vivid analogy, one person wrote of eating establishments: ‘…if someone cannot take the care to spell check…their content – will they take care to wash their hands when preparing my food…?’ This was the drift of most of the other comments, that the care that businesses take in presenting themselves on their websites is an indicator of their approach to providing goods and services. One put it this way – when you buy online, a complete stranger is asking for your money – you’d think twice about the service they’re offering if they can’t take the trouble to write well. This was summed up in another comment – that mistakes in language show carelessness and lack of judgement. And someone who had conducted commercial research into what made people trust one website rather than another found that typos and broken links were crucial. He explained this by saying that accuracy and functionality on the website are seen as a ‘surrogate’ for a good customer process and experience.

Thanks to everyone who voted and/or commented.

Do inaccurate spelling, punctuation and grammar adversely affect online sales?

Common sense, instinct and my own wincing reaction to errors in spelling and punctuation – and to garbled expression – on a website tell me that they must damage online sales because they undermine potential customers’ confidence in the company. But I don’t know that this is universally true or even if there is a proven relationship between accurately written copy and the amount of business generated. And – not for want of trying – I haven’t been able to find a robust answer. This is the closest I’ve got…

Last July, the BBC published an article with the headline ‘Spelling mistakes “cost millions” in lost online sales’. This was based on a claim by Charles Duncombe, owner of several companies trading on the internet, that it is possible to quantify ‘the specific impact of a spelling mistake on sales’. He had demonstrated this by comparing sales from one of his websites, one selling tights, before and after he corrected a spelling error. Sales, he said, had doubled after the correction was made. The BBC’s headline was, I suppose, extrapolated from the figures (which the article also referred to) published by the Office for National Statistics in June 2011 showing that internet sales in the UK were valued at £527 million a week.

While I have no problem accepting that sales doubled, I do find it difficult to believe that this was solely attributable to the correction of a single spelling error, mainly because cause and effect in any aspect of life are rarely so directly and singularly related. Moreover, Mr Duncombe’s comments were made in the context of his concerns about errors in spelling and grammar in the applications for jobs he receives. As further evidence of his concerns, the BBC article quoted CBI head of education and skills James Fothergill who referred to recent research showing that 42 per cent of employers ‘are not satisfied with the basic reading and writing skills of school and college leavers and almost half have had to invest in remedial training to get their staff’s skills up to scratch’.

This is what puzzles me. If so many people have skills in spelling, punctuation and grammar that are inadequate for the jobs they are employed to do, and these same people presumably constitute a significant proportion of online customers, wouldn’t you expect errors in website copy to have minimal impact on customers’ choice of where to shop? In short, there must be many people who don’t notice the errors. Add to these the people unbothered by such errors and the role that the spelling correction alone had in doubling sales seems difficult to credit.

There are surely legitimate reasons for lacking trust in websites with inaccurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. This is partly because of their association with spam and phishing – in the same BBC article, director of the Oxford Internet Institute William Dutton described this as potentially ‘a killer issue’ on commercial websites. I think you could reasonably add that inattention to the detail of presenting content is akin to arriving at an interview in overly casual clothes or, perhaps more aptly, without having washed and pressed them. The state of the candidate’s clothes may or may not reflect the ability of the individual to do the job, but it gives the impression that he or she did not care enough to make an effort. And in linguistic terms, the effort to present copy accurately demonstrates an understanding that the company is communicating largely with an unknown audience who, initially at least and certainly with lesser known businesses, have nothing to go on in assessing whether to buy from this company other than the text and images on its website. If the company has not made the effort in relation to language why should the customer suppose it would make the effort in relation to its products and services?

Which brings me back to the dearth of evidence. Maybe it exists but I have not been able to find it. Search on the internet and you will find plenty of comments about the ingredients for an effective website but few that refer to the quality of the language or the accuracy of the spelling, punctuation and grammar. You will find articles and expressions of fury or indifference about the obliteration of  Waterstones’ apostrophe (which, you’ll notice, has just sneaked back in, in a different place, when you weren’t looking). You will find personal opinions and expressions of feeling about the importance of good corporate communication. But, unless you know otherwise, there is nothing on whether it actually makes a difference to sales.

What do you think? If you are on LinkedIn, please vote here. If not, you can vote here instead.

Sticks and stones by any other name

Did Juliet get it wrong? How do you order a coffee?

Pondering the significance of the enmity between the Capulets and Montagues on her love for Romeo, Shakespeare’s Juliet tells herself that the relationship between a name and the thing that it names is arbitrary – his family name is immaterial; a person is distinct from what they’re called. She says this rather more poetically than I have, in the well-known lines:

 

‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.’

 

Many people would disagree, based on their experience or knowledge of familial, tribal, political, religious, national, sexual, ethnic, footballing (and so on) feuds and prejudices. Maybe Juliet didn’t really believe it herself and was doing what we all do some of the time, arguing for what she wished rather than what she knew to be true. Certainly, in the play of Romeo and Juliet, she was wrong – both she and Romeo die because of their family names. And in real life, name-calling is the most common form of bullying amongst children and young people (see, for example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission research report on identity-based bullying).

 

These are extreme, if not uncommon, examples but they do illustrate the power of language to play on our emotions – even about what we would surely agree in our more rational moments are fairly trivial matters. In response to an article about why Americanisms entering British English cause irritation, for example, thousands of people emailed the BBC News Magazine about their own particular irritants. Here is a flavour of the instances individuals emailed about:

 

  • people [in coffee shops I assume] asking, ‘Can I get a…’
  • references to ‘the least worst option’
  • ‘take-outs’ instead of ‘takeaways’
  • saying ‘I’m good’ rather than ‘I’m well’
  • transforming nouns into verbs by adding ‘ize’ at the end – eg burglarize
  • ‘going forward’ instead of… [Well, I’m not sure what it’s instead of.]
  •  ‘for free’ instead of plain ‘free’.

 

However, it wasn’t the examples that interested me as much as the emotional intensity they generated as illustrated by the words the emailers used to describe their feelings:

 

  • ‘My pulse rises…’
  • ‘It makes me cringe no end.’
  • ‘The word I hate to hear is…’
  • ‘It makes me shudder.’
  •  ‘…really irritates me.’
  • ‘My worst horror is…’
  • ‘Sets my teeth on edge with a vengeance.’

 

It may be that these people have such dull lives that they depend on minor linguistic imports to set their hearts racing. But I doubt it, though I don’t have the scientific evidence. I think that emotional responses to aspects of language run much deeper.

 

It is not only words and phrases; it’s accents too. Given our distance from the social world portrayed in Downton Abbey, you might expect that social judgements based on people’s accents would have all but disappeared. Not so, it seems. An article in the Birmingham Mail, for example, shows the persistence of the long-standing low esteem people from elsewhere in the UK have for the Birmingham accent. Reporting on the development of a sat nav system by Mio that gives directions in local accents as you drive through the country, the article refers to a survey conducted by Tom Tom, which found that ‘the Brummie accent is one of the most disliked in the country’, drivers preferring to be given their instructions in an upper-class accent of the Joanna Lumley variety.  The Dialect Blog refers to some of the adjectives British people use to describe the Birmingham accent: ‘loutish’, ‘thuggish’ and ‘thievish’. The American author of the piece is puzzled, hearing the accent as ‘one of England’s many unusual dialect pockets, with nothing more or less offensive than any other type of regional speech.’

 

And that’s the point: there is nothing intrinsically criminal about the Birmingham accent, any more than there is something inherently hateful in the name of Montague. It’s more that our associations with particular words and accents arouse our passions and preconceptions. Language is loaded with emotion, even when we don’t intend it to be.

 

The thin edge of the wedge for me was Jill Archer, taken out to tea by her daughter Elizabeth in a recent episode of The Archers, when she said that the cakes were ‘to die for’. I haven’t been able to find the origin of the expression but it surely comes most recently from the USA and, I am almost certain, derives from the grammar of Yiddish and is probably completely unrelated to the Yiddish proverb ‘If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.’ I like the expression. But in Ambridge?

 

There’s a lot more to be said about the serious side of the emotional aspects of language. Another time. For now, I’m off to dinnerize with my buddies.

The apostrophe’s last stand?

Does this ill-used, maligned punctuation mark stand a chance? Does it deserve to?

Of all the things to exercise the human race, the use of the apostrophe must surely come low down the list. And yet… the language used to describe reactions to its use, its misuse, and its non-use suggest otherwise.

 

An article in The Telegraph for example, back in 2009, reported Birmingham City Council’s decision to dispense with the apostrophe in signs for place names – on the grounds that it would create greater consistency and avoid costs and confusion. The costs, it seems, were caused by ‘time-consuming queries from local pedants’ (this was the expression used in the article), and the confusion by deciding when to use this troublesome punctuation mark. The article referred to the reaction of John Richards, founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society who, as might be expected, regarded the decision as ‘absolute defeatism’ and a blow to teachers ‘trying to teach children correct grammar and punctuation.’ Children would now, he claimed, ‘go around Birmingham and see utter chaos.’ This was, of course, before the riots of August 2011. A spokesman for Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, said that she would be ‘heartbroken’ to learn of the council’s decision.

 

If Birmingham City Council’s decision set hearts breaking, I imagine Kill the Apostrophe might have caused some fatalities. The argument is that the apostrophe serves ‘only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont.’ Microsoft Word has just inserted the apostrophe in ‘dont’ in this piece of writing and I have had to go back to delete it as the case for killing the apostrophe is written entirely without apostrophes. I have to admit that their absence does not make the article any less difficult to read or understand and the arguments are, on the whole, persuasive.

 

Implicit in the arguments for the preservation of the apostrophe are two lines of reasoning that are difficult to support. One is that standards are falling – there once was a golden age when everyone was taught how to write ‘correctly’ and did so; the other is that language is fixed – there is ‘correct grammar and punctuation’. The first is just plain wrong: there never was a golden age – for punctuation or anything else. The other is mistaken – language and the use of language develops and changes all the time. If that wasn’t the case then there would, for example, be no need to produce new versions of dictionaries and l’Académie française would not have fought a losing battle to preserve the French language.

 

Interesting that Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, revised 3rd edition, 1998) takes a far less emotional approach than either the preservationists or the abolitionists. It outlines the introduction of the apostrophe in the 16th century to denote the omission of a letter or letters, the singular possessive towards the end of the 17th century and the plural possessive a century later, and refers to ‘gross disturbances’ since then, concluding that ‘such instability suggests that further disturbances may be expected in the 21st century.’

 

One of the examples of change in Fowler’s Modern English Usage is the abandonment of the apostrophe by many businesses, including Barclays, Citizens Advice and Mothers Pride. But visit the Mothers Pride website and you find that the company might have dispensed with the apostrophe in their name but are unsure about what to do with it elsewhere. In describing their history, they refer to the ‘1970s’ but a little later to the ‘1960’s and 1970’s’. This could be hedging their bets but more likely it’s about ignoring the importance of consistency. In fact, neither use is wrong but, as Fowler gently advises: ‘the apostrophe is now best omitted in such circumstances.’

 

This demonstrates one of the weaknesses of the preservationists’ arguments – that is, they believe that the rules are uncomplicated. Take a look at Fowler or at the informative article on Wikipedia about apostrophes and you will see that this is not the case. If you also look at the Plain English Campaign’s guidance you will see that, as Devon County Council states a little naively in its admirable  Plain English Guide ‘the rules for using apostrophes are surprisingly simple.’ Then take a trip over to the Plain English Campaign’s article Protect your livelihood with plain language and you find this:

‘Even in our daily routine lives, when peoples’ incomes are being eroded by economic recession…’

Well, we all make mistakes but this does tend to support the Kill the Apostrophe argument that misuse or absence of the apostrophe rarely gets in the way of meaning and that the heat generated is more about snobbery than understanding.

 

For all this, I wouldn’t want to abandon the apostrophe. Do we get rid of everything that is problematic in language? Not content with sending the apostrophe to Coventry, Kill the Apostrophe begins to stray into other areas of language to propose changes to spelling (plural z) to compensate for possible confusion resulting from the demise of the apostrophe. And this is where angels should fear to tread. You tamper with one aspect of language and all kinds of unintended consequences follow. Better that language should evolve, as it will do anyway whatever we try to impose, and undergo the gross disturbances referred to earlier.

 

They will come principally from the way we use online technologies. For some of the sanest debate, have a look at the blogs at I-COM about search engine optimization (SEO) and apostrophes. Even the Apostrophe Protection Society may approve.