The Born Freelancer asks: does spelling still count?

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

How important is correct spelling in today’s brave new world of tweeting, texting and the obsessive need to be “first with the news”?



I sometimes read the SOWNY website. It’s the “Southern Ontario and Western New York” radio and TV forum for listeners and viewers in that area to express their opinions and vent their frustrations about the current state of broadcasting. Most regional areas have similar forums. I also read, which provides a similar service on our west coast. A frequent topic of either genuine or mock despair on SOWNY is the poor standard of spelling in the mass media today – online, in print and on TV. I presume there’s poor spelling in radio too, although, fortunately for radio freelancers, listeners can never really know for sure.

One of the recent subjects of much discussion on the SOWNY forum was this major headline from the online Toronto Star dated July 6th: “Hondy Indy Toronto: Drivers train like any athlete for the big race”. Did you catch the spelling mistake? “Hondy” not “Honda”. The actual name of this event and its internationally-known sponsor was misspelled! Sadly this is not unusual for big city media these days. Not much time will go by before some forum regular will spot yet another spelling mistake on a TV news crawl or some other allegedly credible news source.



The SOWNY gang will no doubt be pleased (along with all hearing-impaired Canadians) that as of this fall, the CRTC is to mandate by law accurate spelling on all TV closed captioning. The required rate of accuracy will be 95% during live programming and 100% on prerecorded productions. The current standards must be abysmally low, creating a myriad of accessibility issues, to have prodded the usually supine CRTC into such sensible action.

But does it really matter?

Now I know that language is organic and constantly evolving and changing. And rightly so. But I would posit that traditional accurate spelling still matters. I know it matters to me as a consumer of news. Every time I note another spelling inaccuracy it immediately damages the credibility of the news source in my mind. If they can’t even get that right, how do I know they can get anything right? (As an aside it also makes me question history both past and in the future. History is based in part upon the collation of contemporary news sources. How reliable will our contemporary media be as a reflection of life in the early 21st century?)

As a professional, I take great pride in my ability to communicate. You may not always agree with what I say but I work hard to make sure you understand what I mean. If improper spelling dilutes my message – either by confusing you or by becoming an amusing distraction – then I have failed. And I apply the same standard as a consumer of media. I think it is as simple as that.

Proofreading used to be taken for granted at all leading news outlets. Today such expertise is no longer valued enough to even have staff dedicated to its cause. Yes, I know that we all have spell-checkers. But they don’t always work. And I think that relying on them contributes to a general attitude of “minimal accuracy is good enough” among contemporary corporate media consumed with quantity output. Speed, rather than accuracy, is increasingly considered the essential measure of success. I find that to be both sad and irresponsible. Gordon Lightfoot would likely agree — ask him how he felt about his premature death notices! I would posit that consistently poor spelling is indicative of such misguided corporate culture. It may also be symptomatic of a greater societal malaise.



I caught a little bit of a fascinating summer show on CBC Radio One recently called “Babel”, which talks about language and all of its multifaceted aspects. One show covered the importance of spelling. What intrigued me was how many young individuals who use social media felt that receiving anything other than correct spelling in texts and tweets was a kind of insult to them. They felt they weren’t being taken seriously or with enough due respect. This was a revelation to me. I must admit I have in the past used abbreviations such as “R U there?” instead of “Are you there?” in texts simply as a form of convenience – I’m a very slow typist. But until now I had never thought of it as demonstrating any less regard or implied respect for the recipient.

I guess it all comes down to why you are communicating and to whom.

The show really got me thinking. If I’m texting a colleague I’ve known for years and with whom I have a mutual regard and track record, “R U there?” doesn’t seem to me to be inappropriate. (Although maybe now I should rethink that!) If I’m meeting a prospective or current client I definitely feel it is more fitting and proper to text “Are you there?” This is not just about presenting myself as professionally as possible but it is also about (I have now come to realize) showing them proper and appropriate respect, too.

And so to come back to finding spelling errors in professional media, I will extend that thought even further. When I see a litany of spelling mistakes online or in print I used to simply infer that they didn’t care much about their own professional integrity — that their accuracy was to be always questioned. That I might not have received a full and accurate explanation of the subject at hand. Now I have come to realize that it also shows how very little they care about me as their audience. They think so little of me that they can’t even be bothered to present their very best work. No, they figure “it will do”. As a discriminating consumer of news I will consequently turn elsewhere, to media who seem to value my intelligence and loyalty by ensuring quality control over their written output.


BBC News Report

All of this background helps explain to me a recent BBC News report that posits poor spelling on websites costs online retailers millions in lost sales. The report suggests that up to half of all online sales could be lost due to poor spelling on websites. This makes sense. We all make snap decisions based upon first impressions. Of course we also all know the old saying about “don’t judge a book by its cover” but when all you have to judge a business by is their online presence how else are you to judge them? Poor spelling seems to make new visitors turn away from a website, suspecting that it might be somehow phishing or spamming or otherwise bogus.

The report quotes one of its expert subjects as saying that, in effect, even the most modern cutting-edge companies with the latest style of website still depend on the “old-fashioned” skill of spelling to make their online marketing effective. I find it odd to think of proper spelling as “old-fashioned”. I consider it as contemporary and as relevant a necessary skill as any in my professional tool kit. (And one that is in constant need of updating given all the new words entering our general vocabulary.) To think of spelling as “old-fashioned,” I would posit, reflects rather poorly on current educational standards – a point brought forward in the BBC report. That spelling is the foundation for the online success of many “cutting edge” companies is no surprise. Unless you are catering to a very select, very precise demographic with its own tribal code –  how could it be otherwise? Language is still the common currency of most communications. And unless you are a politician or a technical manual for a new appliance, its goal is always clarity aligned with credibility.

What surprised me most about the BBC report was learning how hard it can be for some companies to find qualified staff to spell properly. But perhaps it is not so surprising. We live in a world where cover letters seeking employment increasingly use text-speak instead of appropriate traditional spelling.


Good Spelling = Brand Integrity

The connection to poor spelling in news reports or any professional writing anywhere seems obvious. Poor spelling ultimately reflects on your credibility, your authenticity, and ultimately how the reader will come to view and respond to your brand. When confronted with repeated instances of poor spelling, many will act accordingly either by switching you off or choosing to use another service.

I get it. Online or in print all you have are words to sell yourself. Your words are the only physical manifestation of your brand. If the very means by which you are selling yourself is inappropriate or even faulty, what does that say about you?

I was in a coffee shop the other day talking to a colleague when a third colleague came in to show us a poster he had just had run off to promote an upcoming stage performance. Right away I spotted a typo on the poster and my other colleague did too. He immediately pointed it out. Crestfallen, our performer colleague looked at it and said he’d noticed it too but hoped nobody else would. We told him it reflected poorly on him and made him look like an amateur. He said he didn’t believe a simple typo would impact negatively at all on any business whatsoever. No amount of arguing with him would change his mind. So eventually I asked him for the name of the company that did the poster for him. “Oh, so you want them to do one for you too?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I want to make sure that I never accidentally use them”. He looked at me for what seemed a very long time. Eventually he nodded his head. “Think I’d better go have a new one run off” he said, very quietly, and left the coffee shop in a hurry.


What do you think about correct spelling?

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Posted on July 13, 2012 at 7:14 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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