Are typos acceptable in business?

As an avid reader, lover of language and professional (some of the time) proofreader, I find that spelling mistakes and grammatical errors jump out at me. I don’t go looking for them, I can assure you. More than once, I’ve been stopped in my tracks by a white van’s signage bestrewn with random apostrophes; or I’ve wandered past a greengrocer’s shop selling cucumber’s (which would be correct if they were referring to something the cucumber had in its possession).

However, I’ve never been tempted to let the van driver or the greengrocer know that they’ve made a mistake. Why? Well, it’s rude, isn’t it? Or is it?

A quick rummage round Google soon links me to a survey of employers which reveals that 75% would be put off a job candidate with poor spelling or grammar skills. Which is no great surprise. I was surprised, however, to learn that the same employers found poor spelling even more annoying than CV ‘exaggerations’.

The same news article asked readers for their views on standards of modern spelling and grammar; the majority were of the opinion that our skills have declined steadily over the last 30 odd years and it’s most definitely NOT a good thing.

They might have a point – until recently, grammar was not on the national curriculum and hadn’t been for a number of years. I studied Latin at school which undoubtedly contributed to my English grammar skills, yet for decades Latin has only been available to a minority in private education and some grammar schools, although it is making a comeback.

So, why did so many employers in that survey have a problem? Well, a lack of attention to detail in one area, such as spelling, implies a lack of attention to detail in who knows how many other areas? What’s most regrettable, in my opinion, is that the CV with a spelling mistake may well be the CV of the most perfect person in the world for the job. But the chances are that the recruiter reading the CV won’t care to delve any deeper once they’ve been distracted by a careless error. Assuming, of course, that they know enough to be distracted. The irony of a school system which has undervalued good grammar and spelling for years is that in no time at all, the people reading the CVs won’t be able to spot the mistakes.

I was on a training course recently and the trainer, writing on the white board, spelt something incorrectly. I saw it, but didn’t comment. First, it seemed to serve no purpose other than to prove I could spot a mistake he’d made. Smug me. Second, the trainees all clearly understood what he meant, even with the mistake intact. Then the lady sitting next to me spoke up. “You’ve spelt — wrong.” The trainer took it in good humour and corrected his error; and then decided to point out that the writer in the room (me) hadn’t spotted it. Oooh! Charming. I wish I’d just corrected him in the first place. And that got me thinking. Is it bad form to correct mistakes? Is it acceptable for businesses to make mistakes?

In my opinion, the answer to the second question is most definitely no. As to the first question, that depends on whom you’re correcting. I’d hope a client would expect me to, since that’s part of what they’re paying me for. And I would hope that any business owner would welcome the chance to correct a mistake in private and not broadcast it to potential customers in public. Social media and the internet have exacerbated this problem, particularly for small businesses. The casual nature of posting on a social site means that, inevitably, errors will slip through the net, particularly as those posting may not be writers by trade. And while the majority of us will still understand the intention behind the words (because we’ve been taught the ‘rules’, or simply because we’re everyday users of the English language), there’s no doubt that sloppy copy leaves a bad impression on some customers, to the point of affecting a sale.

I can’t imagine any business owner wants to create a bad impression. And yet so many pay so much attention to the quality of other things: their website design, their printing, and their product development, for example. The words they use to sell these things get left behind. It’s not difficult to spell check your writing, at the very least. As I say frequently to clients, words ARE powerful. Make them count.