Are poor spelling and grammar really all that bad?

At Write we’re constantly promoting the importance of good spelling and grammar. We run workshops, offer personalised training, rework documents, and write blog posts, all in an effort to help writers (and documents) be the best that they can be. And good spelling and grammar always play a part in these approaches to plain English.

But how much of an impact can poor spelling and grammar have on a reader? Is getting it right really that important?

How bad can it really be?

I recently decided that I had to get to the bottom of this. I wanted to know, from people who regularly receive and read important documents, how they really felt about the ‘odd’ spelling or grammatical error. And so I asked them.

Image: Notebook and pen with question mark.

What is the potential impact of poor spelling and grammar? (Image by Ethan Lofton (CC BY-2.0))

I sent out the following sentence to a small but (from my perspective) influential group of contacts:

Michael and me have decided that the documnet, that we sent you today, is fine and theirs no further need for action.

The people I contacted ranged from company directors to the deputy editor of a newspaper through to a professor of philosophy. I asked each person whether they would question the professionalism of an individual or organisation that communicated this sentence.

A surprising amount of fervour

The feedback I received didn’t surprise me but the fervour of some of the responses did.

Every person I quizzed said they’d doubt the professionalism of a person who’d send this through. ‘Not only that, I would question whether or not the author was competent to review the document mentioned, and would have to follow up with them again to confirm someone competent had reviewed it,’ said Dave, chief policy analyst at a high-profile government department.

Company director Marina felt the same way about the errors. ‘My reaction to the sentence is one of annoyance and the back part of my mind is almost certainly judging them … I wouldn’t hire someone who wrote like that.’

‘Even if it were dictated to a totally incompetent typist I would wonder about their selection of staff,’ said author and academic philosopher, Rosemary.

We all make mistakes

Although everyone I contacted doubted the competence of someone who’d write the ‘offending’ sentence, a couple did express at least a little forgiveness.

‘It’s all about context,’ replied deputy editor Piers. ‘We can all make some of those fundamental mistakes and the more comfortable the relationship between correspondents the more you can get away with.

‘The key is to always read over your email before you send it. Poor spelling and grammar always makes the reader feel a little bit superior for not making those silly mistakes themselves.’

Rosemary added to her response that she’s often guilty herself of mistakenly writing ‘theirs’ instead of ‘there’s’. But she also noted that ‘just one glance and I would have corrected it’.

My conclusion on the importance of correct spelling and grammar

Correct spelling and grammar really do matter — a lot. And checking and rechecking is key.

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One response to “Are poor spelling and grammar really all that bad?”

  1. Rosemary Mercer says:

    1. I oppose any change in grammar that makes our language blunter, e.g: “hopefully” used to mean merely “full of hope”, now a sentence such as “She opened the envelope hopefully” has two different meanings. [too late to do anything about this now]

    2. re the ‘wandering apostrophe’, I would solve this by abolishing apostrophes altogether except in the few cases where the meaning is clearer with them.

    3. I would support using “they”, “them” or “their” instead of “he or she”, “him or her” or “his or hers”, they are both awkward but the “they” set could eventually become less awkward then “he or she” etc, (or “one”, “one’s” when it sounds pompous).

    4. People think of grammar as a set of rules laid down by teachers and pedants, forgetting that it has evolved naturally through the use of ordinary speakers who want to communicate more clearly.

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