Can Bad Grammar Destroy Your Marketing Efforts?

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Editing

I explain how peer-reviewed studies support the notion that bad grammar actually has a real-world impact.

Like most things in business, marketing is a balance between quality and expense.  The probable gains of a solution are weighed against its cost – if it’s not going to be worth it, then don’t do it.

Marketing teams apply the same logic to grammar and spelling errors in their marketing materials.  Is the cost of implementing a solution to bad grammar – a proofreader – really worth it?

Many managers would argue no.  They’d claim that the cost of hiring a professional editor and the bottleneck that’s subsequently created in output aren’t worth it at all.  “After all,” they’d explain to their dejected copywriters, “most normal people don’t actually care about things like grammar and spelling!”.  There’d also probably be some mention of technology and short attention spans and social media.

So is it true?  Is proofreading a big waste of time and money for the modern marketer?

Let’s find out.

People Judge Based on Bad Grammar

grammar matters cartoon

No, we’re not talking about your university professor – normal people with a normal awareness of grammar will actually form negative impressions towards writers of mistake-filled documents.

There’s a solid body of literature evidencing that judgements about peoples’ intelligence can be formed very quickly and based off very little information [1].  This means, when presented with a document like an article, letter or resume, readers will rapidly make judgements about the author’s cognitive abilities.

A 2002 study about this phenomenon found that readers did negatively judge authors’ intelligence when spelling mistakes were present in the text [1].  A low ratio of errors (four errors in a 308-word text) wasn’t found to have much of an impact, but a higher ratio of errors (12 errors in a 210-word test) produced a more adverse reaction [1].  Interestingly, participants’ ability to identify the errors had no impact on how they judged the author, meaning that even ordinary people can and will form negative impressions based on spelling errors [1].

A 2005 study yielded similar results, although the authors noted that the judgements were directly related to the author’s abilities in the context of the writing – other traits, like mathematical ability and likeability, were not affected by errors [2].

Does this still hold true for less formal mediums, like email and social media?  Yes, it does – in their 2016 study, Boland and Queen found that emails from prospective housemates were judged negatively if errors were present.  Here’s the core of their findings [3]:

“Different sets of personality traits were relevant for the two types of errors. More extraverted people were likely to overlook written errors that would cause introverted people to judge the person who makes such errors more negatively. Less agreeable people were more sensitive to grammos [common mistakes like mixing up ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there], while more conscientious and less open people were sensitive to typos [mechanical errors like ‘mehcanical’].”

And what about resumes?  Well … yes, it shouldn’t surprise you bad grammar impacts how recruiters view candidates, and a number of different studies confirm this [4, 5].

A 2019 study actually found that poor grammar impacts how recruiters view completely unrelated personality traits; average and high error rates in cover letters caused significant negative perceptions of traits like:

  • ‘Clear Thinker’
  • ‘Good Communicator’
  • ‘Skilled’
  • ‘Thorough’
  • ‘Hardworking’
  • ‘Capable’
  • ‘Engaged’
  • ‘Team Oriented’

Messages Can Be Contaminated Too

At this point, it should be obvious that spelling and grammar errors will have a negative impact on how people see you.  But what about your message?  Will that be compromised by a few stray typos and missing punctuation marks too?

Marketing managers, listen up: yes, it will.

Varnhagen’s 2000 study reviewed the effect of poor spelling on schoolchildren’s perceptions of stories.  Here’s what she found: “Second, fourth, and sixth graders considered the stories containing misspelling to be less well constructed, less comprehendible, less interesting, and less memorable” [6].

Yes, even children will struggle to understand your message if it’s plagued by mistakes – adults will probably be even more judgemental.

I say ‘probably’, but that, too, is backed by science.  A 2011 found that media articles with grammar errors took readers longer to process, resulting in less recall about the articles’ subjects and a decrease in perceived authorial credibility [7].

A different 2015 study revealed that media articles that had been edited versus those that had not were viewed by audiences as being significantly better in terms of “professionalism, organization, writing quality, and value” [8].  This finding was unaffected by age – managers, citing your 18–25-year-old target audience as an excuse for skipping editing doesn’t hold water [8].

Does bad grammar and poor spelling impact businesses?

“But Duncan,” you’re probably thinking. “You’ve talked about authors and media articles … I’m running a marketing team.  What has any of this got to do with us?”

Good question.  How we intercept and interpret messages really doesn’t change across mediums, so it makes sense that content and copy will be affected by mistakes in the same ways that essays, media articles, books and resumes are.

Except rather than the individual author being impacted, it’s probably going to be your brand.

Think about it.  Brands are inextricably linked with the people and the communications they output.  It’s why when an employee sends out an inappropriate communication or does something wrong, the company publicly announces that they’ve been fired/disciplined/retrained – it’s as much a distancing effort as it is a matter of moral obligation.

Do you really want your content and copy conveying a lack of credibility to your target audiences?  Do you want them to compare you to more coherent competitors, and walk away viewing your company as less intelligent and less capable?  Do you want them to struggle to process and then struggle to remember your brand messaging?

The answer to all three questions should be a resounding ‘no’.

Correct spelling and good grammar are really just the bare basics when it comes to MarComms operations, but, unfortunately, small budgets and lowered standards have conspired, in many companies, to produce marketing that is grammatically and linguistically inept.

The Solution: Proofreading

Of course, there is a solution to bad grammar and spelling, and it’s not one that requires tossing out your current copywriting team or recruiting an old-school news editor who meditates by reciting the AP Stylebook.

editorial proofreading pen

Yes, I’m talking about hiring a proofreader.  I mentioned it at the start of this article, and hopefully the evidence I’ve presented is convincing enough that you’ll view the cost as an investment rather than an expense.

Even professional writers need their work proofread (take it from me).  And even professional editors shouldn’t review their own work – most writers know that effectively reviewing your own writing is very difficult, especially with short turnaround times.

So don’t lump proofreading as an additional task onto an already overburdened team who probably aren’t trained editors anyway.  Instead, contract an external proofreader who can quickly and thoroughly review your marketing output with a clear mind.  Proofreading, unlike copy editing, isn’t particularly expensive or time-consuming, and it’s a good way to eliminate both grammar issues and the awkward faux pas that can sometimes slip through into front-facing assets.


[1] Kreiner, D. S., Schnakenberg, S. D., Green, A. G., Costello, M. J. & McClin, A. F. (2002) Effects of Spelling Errors on the Perception of Writers. The Journal of General Psychology. 129(1), 5–17. DOI: 10.1080/00221300209602029

[2] Figueredo, L. & Varnhagen, C. K. (2005) Didn’t You Run the Spell Checker? Effects of Type of Spelling Error and Use of a Spell Checker on Perceptions of the Author. Reading Psychology. 26(4-5), 441–458. DOI: 10.1080/02702710500400495

[3] Boland, J. E. & Queen, R. (2016). If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages. PLOS ONE. 11(3), e0149885. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149885

[4] Schramm, R. M. & Neil Dortch, R. (1991) An Analysis of Effective Resume Content, Format, and Appearance Based On College Recruiter Perceptions. The Bulletin of the Association for Business Communication. 54(3), 18–23. DOI: 10.1177/108056999105400306

[5] Charney, D. H., Rayman, J. & Ferreira-Buckley, l. (1992). How Writing Quality Influences Readers’ Judgments of Résumés in Business and Engineering. Journal of Business and Technical Communication. 6(1), 38–74. DOI: 10.1177/1050651992006001002

[6] Varnhagen, C. K. (2000) Shoot the messenger and disregard the message? Children’s attitudes towards spelling. Reading Psychology. 21(2), 115–128. DOI: 10.1080/02702710050084446

[7] Appelman, A. & Bolls, P. (2011) Article Recall, Credibility Lower with Grammar Errors. Newspaper Research Journal. 32(2), 50–62. DOI: 10.1177/073953291103200205

[8] Vultee, F. (2015) Audience Perceptions of Editing Quality. Digital Journalism. 3(6), 832–849. DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2014.995938

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

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