Avoiding embarrassing blunders: why it pays to proofread
Admittedly, the so-called ‘Grammar Police’ can be rather irritating at times – and that’s coming from a copywriter. Especially when you’re rushing out the door, typing a quick text to let your friend know you’ll be there in 10. So what if you said ‘their’ instead of ‘there’? Does it really matter? Perhaps not so much when you’re just messaging your pals, but when it comes to business we certainly think it does…
The reality is that words hold a lot of power. In fact, just one wrong letter can make all the difference to the meaning or context of a sentence. Take ‘not’ and ‘now’ for example – there’s a whole world of difference between ‘My internet connection is not working’ and ‘My internet connection is now working’. And we wouldn’t think twice about taking medicine from a bottle that reads, ‘Take one capsule before bed’ – but ‘Take one capsule before ded’ would be an entirely different story.
Of course, mistakes do happen – and generally they don’t lead to a life or death situation. Most people can be forgiven for a few errors in a 30-page internal document and it won’t really matter, but on an advert or website, or anything which is aimed at your customers? Not so much.
When it comes to customer facing work, there really isn’t much margin for error, and extra care should always be taken – ultimately, it’s your business that’s on the line. After all, if you can’t get basic spelling and punctuation correct, then what else might you be getting wrong? Mistakes don’t instil a great deal of confidence in customers, which is crucial if you want them to part with their hard-earned cash. Would you buy a new fragrance from a company that fails to notice a mix-up between ‘colon’ and ‘cologne’? Probably not.
NOT SUCH A ‘GENIOUS’ IDEA
Instilling confidence in your customers is vital, but if you’re running a business then you have to consider the financial implications of making a mistake as well. You don’t want to have to reprint thousands of posters, flyers or whatever else it may be, just because of sloppy proofreading.
Imagine the dismay when H&M mass produced t-shirts featuring this famous Thomas Edison quote, only to realise a typo had slipped through the net. To add insult to injury, the misspelled word was ‘genius’, which begs the question – how did no one in the marketing or production teams spot a rogue o nestled in between the i and the u? Just think how much it would have cost to reprint all of those t-shirts. No doubt the team at H&M were feeling more than a little red faced following this rather public debacle. Which leads us onto our next point…
Mistakes are not only costly, but also embarrassing – no one likes to be wrong, least of all big companies. Proofreading is crucial, as even a single misplaced, or missing, letter can throw off your entire campaign – yet again demonstrating the powerful impact that words can have.
Where once you might have got away with just being the butt of a few jokes in the office, your mistake is now far more likely to end up on the internet for all to see, as the H&M situation shows. In fact, a quick Google search will bring up a plethora of poor spelling or punctuation examples – such as the infamous case of McDonald’s, which rather unfortunately omitted a ‘g’ when advertising its Bacon and Cheese Angus Burger. We’ll leave you to work that one out…
NO, SHE DID NOT ‘LOOSE’ THE GAME
Words that sound the same, but are spelt differently – otherwise known as homophones – can also prove to be a bit of a minefield. The ‘bare’ did not scare you to death – though in fairness, unexpected nudity can sometimes be a little alarming! But we reckon a bear would give you somewhat more of a fright. On a similar note, we often see lose and loose used incorrectly. Although not strictly a homophone, this one seems to be a source of frequent confusion. They did not ‘loose’ the game, and Bertie did not have a ‘lose’ tooth. But when you lose a lot of weight, then yes – your clothes do become loose!
Perhaps the hardest punctuation mark to get your head around is the humble apostrophe – which is often missing, misplaced, or even included where it’s not needed at all. Apostrophes can show the omission of certain letters from a word, but they do not make something plural. This is a particularly common error when words are written as acronyms. Most people would know that the word ‘televisions’ doesn’t need an apostrophe, but even major retailers can be seen advertising TV’s rather than TVs. Likewise with numbers, you don’t suddenly add an apostrophe when thousands becomes 1000s.
Another key role of the apostrophe is to indicate possession. A stray apostrophe in Sport’s Bar tells you that it’s owned by a guy called Sport – rather than being a bar that serves beer alongside the football or rugby at the weekend. And as for that studio on the high street called Tattoo’s? Well we can only assume the owner is Mr. Tattoo himself – it must be fate.
And here’s one last example to really fry your brain – adding possessive apostrophes to words that are plural already. This confuses even the most seasoned writers on occasion. It’s children’s clothing, not childrens’ clothing. An s is often added to make something plural, in which case the apostrophe would absolutely go after it to show possession – the girls’ school, or the boys’ trousers for example. But ‘children’ is already plural, much like ‘women’ or ‘men’, so the apostrophe goes before the s, not after.
THE PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING – SOME WORDS OF ADVICE
If you want to be taken seriously as a business, you need to understand the rules and be checking thoroughly for any mistakes. But even then, it can still sometimes not be enough. There’s nothing more infuriating than reading a document numerous times, only to spot a typo after it’s gone to print, or been sent to the recipient. But it happens all the time.
It’s easy to become a little ‘word blind’, especially if you’ve been working on the same task for an extended period of time. Our advice here would be to ask someone else, who has never seen the document before, to proofread it thoroughly for you – as there’s a good chance they will spot mistakes that you might have missed.
Reading something out loud to yourself can also help, as you’ll find it much easier to spot mistakes or awkward sentence structures by hearing them, rather than just reading them. And when it comes to spellchecking, try reading your copy backwards. This may sound counterintuitive, but we all tend to read what something is meant to say, rather than what it actually says – especially if we’ve written it ourselves. By reading backwards, each word is checked in its own right, so you won’t get carried away thinking about the meaning of the sentence, and miss any incorrect spelling.
However large or small your organisation, there is no excuse for poor proofreading. It’s unprofessional and will make your audience think that you simply don’t care about what you’re saying. We’ll leave you with a classic example from Mitt Romney, whose amateur blunder during the 2012 US presidential election was cause for much amusement.
The Republican party’s nominee, or more likely his campaign team, managed to misspell America on his ‘With Mitt’ iPhone app. And as everyone knows, the number one rule when it comes to job applications is to make sure you spell the name of the company right, so this was a pretty major error by anyone’s standards!
Of course the thing with rules is that they were made to be broken, and some of the most well-known straplines aren’t even grammatically correct. If we’re being really pedantic, ‘Got Milk?’ should actually be ‘Do You Have Any Milk?’, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it now, does it? Nevertheless, we’d recommend walking before you run, and erring on the side of caution when it comes to your written communication. And on that note, a final word of warning.
Don’t just rely on Word’s grammar or spell checker – it’s good, but it’s not that good…