When browsing the web, reading a brochure, or consuming any other written communication, how bothered are you by the grammar? Or, more accurately, by the correctness of the grammar?
By “grammar”, I’m talking about more than the dictionary definition that mentions syntax – the structure or arrangement of words and phrases. Yes, I’m including typos, spelling mistakes and incorrect (or absent) punctuation too. And, given that definition, consider this: does a spelling mistake, misplaced letter or absent comma get your goat? Or, worse still (for the message-provider), make you think less of them; distrust them, even?
The answer to either question appears to be a matter of opinion, as well as context. We’ll all forgive such things in an email or text message from a friend (and if we can’t, we probably don’t have that many friends anyway). But what if the mistake-ridden message is on a business website? Or in a sales letter from a charity or other organisation?
Are you more inclined to disbelieve the facts that have been presented within the content? Do the errors make the company appear less credible and/or capable? Are you less likely to act upon the message (in the way the writer/ organisation would like you to)?
Having Googled for statistics about the importance of grammar and its impact (upon reputation, sales and other criteria), it’s clear that there’s not much research into this area – or little that’s published, anyway. It could be that firms are doing A/B tests with correct versus incorrect grammar to see if it makes a difference to whether someone clicks or buys… but if they are, it’s not in the public domain as far as I can see.
So, that leaves us with our gut-instinct and/or personal experience. Of a certain age (i.e. I was taught grammar and spelling at school) and a professional copywriter, I have to admit to being swayed by poor grammar – in a negative way.
While acknowledging that we all make mistakes, and that language is constantly evolving, I also happen to believe that businesses should ensure they check and correct their writing before publication. Firstly, it shows they care and that they’re diligent. Secondly, it supports clear communication – a text riddled with errors isn’t as easy to read as the same message that’s been proofed and amended so that it’s grammatically correct.
Checking your work
So, as well as spell-and-grammar checking your texts, you should also print them off and read them out loud – so that you can hear the mistakes (and/or get someone else to do it). Then, you should proof-read them, looking at each word in turn, from the end of the doc backwards. Yes, from the end of the piece back towards the start. Doing it that way stops your brain from assuming what’s likely to come next, and therefore allows you to spot missing words.
It’s pain-staking work but, I’d argue, worth it. Getting it right won’t offend anybody, while getting it wrong may do.
However, if you’d like an alternative to all that hard work… hire a copywriter 😉
If your organisation commissions RichWords to assess some writing samples – with a view to editing, rewriting or replacing the text – we’ll use our PAGES analysis system to give you a structured response. We consider the Power of the vocabulary/overall message, its Architecture (structure; logical flow) and Grammar – as defined above – plus Eloquence and Style.
The title of a recent article in The Telegraph online edition summed up the problems facing the new boss of the UK’s biggest retailer: “Tesco’s Lost Decade”.
Despite its 28% (lion’s) share of the market, the company has lost its way over the past 10 years and is now experiencing declining sales and poor credit ratings. It’s also enduring negative publicity on other issues, ranging from suppliers who feel they’re being squeezed unfairly through to disgruntled customers unhappy about their shopping experience. There are also environmentalists and other commentators grinding whatever axes they can find to attack the store.
Even wordsmiths like myself and others with a claim to expertise (or interest) in English have joined in on the act. There have been complaints about Tesco’s poor grasp of basic vocabulary and grammar, and the chief culprit is the humble sign that appears above selected checkout aisles in every store: “10 items or less”.
The first thing to say is that Tesco’s is not the only retailer using this wording… but as hinted above, the “Let’s bash Tesco’s” band-wagon is rolling, so various people are jumping on board with some word pedantry too.
The second thing to say is that the sign IS wrong – in terms of traditional grammar, at least: the word “less” should be replaced by the word “fewer”. The reason for this required change is simple – “less” refers to quantity and “fewer” to number.
Now, for many people, there’s not a lot of difference between these terms; they understand “quantity” in the same way as they understand “number” (which explains the existence – and prevalence – of the wording on the sign in the first place).
So the best way to recognise the distinction between the two words is to cite a different example. The style guide gurus William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (aka “Strunk & White”) provide a great one in their classic reference book “The Elements of Style“:
“His troubles are less than mine” means “His troubles are not so great as mine” (where “less” refers to quantity, or degree). In contrast, “His troubles are fewer than mine” means “His troubles are not so numerous as mine” (“fewer” referring to the number of troubles).
See the difference now?
If you believe it’s important to abide by the traditional rules of grammar, then the use of “less” in the sign may irk you… but probably not stop you from shopping at Tesco’s (although some of the other issues mentioned above might have that effect).
However, your own organisation may well be subject to different rules of engagement – assuming it isn’t the size of the retail giant. In other words, when similar errors creep into your company’s communications, the effects may be more serious and detrimental to the success of your business.
So, a spelling mistake or grammatical mis-step may cause a client (or prospect) to pause for a moment and (re)consider your organisation’s attention to detail. Frequent or obvious mistakes may cause them to question your intelligence and educational background (even though these may not be relevant to the product or service you’re hoping to offer).
This means that getting the words (and grammar) correct can play an important part in helping you win – and retain – business.
If you’re unsure about getting these things right, then RichWords is happy to provide you with advice and training, as well as originate and/or edit texts – just email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.
You see, every little bit helps…
There’s a good post on Copyblogger about the three grammar rules that it’s OK to break.
And, if I may be so bold (two broken already!), I’m going to disprove another – one that we learn very early: ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.
Now that’s all very well for ‘receive’, ‘deceit’ and so on, but what about the following exceptions: ancient, foreign, science, vein…
Can anyone add to this short (and non-exhaustive) list of where the “rule” doesn’t work?
(Image courtesy of Mark O’Meara on Flickr)
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