The penis mightier then the sword - image for article by Greg Alder

What happens when the head of a global accountancy partnership sends out a media release with a grammatical error?

What happens when a hospital’s website has a spelling mistake in a headline? Or an airline’s website contains typographical errors?

Consciously, you might dismiss these as simple mistakes with little consequence.

Subconsciously, there’s a whole lot more going on.

Your subconscious mind sees these errors as evidence of a lack of quality control. For current and potential accounting clients, hospital patients or airline passengers, a lack of quality control can be a killer.

In a controlled experiment, Rachel Schloneger of Cedarville University found that as the number of mistakes increased, a reader’s perception of the author’s intelligence fell. Most of us wish to be seen as intelligent.

Readers’ assessment of an essay’s quality is substantially based on the absence of spelling mistakes. A good message can be damaged by bad spelling and grammar. A poor message can be enhanced by good spelling and grammar.

Paige Kimble of the Scripps National Spelling Bee says, “Spelling absolutely counts. What we know is that good spelling is a tremendous reflection of an individual’s overall intelligence and attention to detail”.

Poor spelling can be an indicator of dyslexia. Richard Branson is open about his dyslexia.

“As a dyslexic, spelling and grammar was the cause of a constant headache for me at school. I tried not to let it bother me too much though, and concentrated on those areas I was good at, or at least enjoyed. I loved the creativity that comes with writing and I would even craft my sister’s love letters for her sometimes! The irony is that I only left school to pursue my dream of building a magazine – where getting spelling right would be important. Thankfully, I already understood the value of delegation.”

Clearly dyslexia hasn’t stopped him from succeeding.

Many people with poor spelling and grammar make it to the top of their fields. They have learnt not to rely on their own spelling abilities. They get others to check what they have written.

Whether you consider yourself good at spelling or grammar doesn’t really matter. What matters is that for any important communication, you can’t be trusted to proofread your own sentences.

The reason that we can’t proofread our own content is that we know what we meant to write. Our brains subconsciously autocorrect what our eyes see.

Even when we know the correct spelling and grammar, we can’t see that we’ve written there instead of their, or it’s instead of its. We don’t notice that the the sentence has two thes. We don’t notice letters out of sequence – signle instead of single. 

We don’t even notice that this sentence that we have just written, about this issue that still hasn’t been resolved, which you might remember that we wrote to you about last month after the enquiry that you submitted via the form on our website, doesn’t seem to have a start and an end point and as a result it seems to go on and on for so long that it’s impossible to remember what was the original point of this sentence.

So, here are some simple rules: 

  • Don’t write your own copy for your website or presentation decks or prospectuses. Get a professional writer to do it. 
  • If you do write, use fewer commas and more full stops. Limit sentences to 20 words.
  • Ask someone you trust to proofread what you have written. If it’s really important, ask a second person. And a third.
  • Don’t trust that the engraver or the tattooist knows how to spell.
  • Don’t trust autocorrect.
  • Hire an editor.

Photo by Glen Carrie via Unsplash


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