Learn how to spell or lose millions, says UK online boss

According to a recent article on the BBC News website, bad spelling is costing the online industry a fortune in lost revenue. A far-fetched notion? Not really – here’s why…

The BBC quotes a Mr Charles Duncombe, a director of a company called JustSayPlease Ltd which offers lower priced shopping to consumers by going direct and cutting out the advertising cost hike.

The BBC article goes on … Mr Duncombe says when recruiting staff he has been “shocked at the poor quality of written English.” He says the big problem for online firms isn’t technology but finding staff who can spell… “I know that industry bemoaning the education system is nothing new but it is becoming more and more of a problem with more companies going online.”

“This is because when you sell or communicate on the internet 99% of the time it is done by the written word.”

So why could bad spelling be such a disaster in terms of lost revenue?

Well to start with, according to the Confederation of British Industry it seems that many UK employers are obliged to provide “remedial literacy lessons” for their staff.

The BBC article continues… Mr Duncombe says that it is possible to identify the specific impact of a spelling mistake on sales. He says he measured the revenue per visitor to the tightsplease.co.uk website and found that the revenue was twice as high after an error was corrected. “If you project this across the whole of internet retail then millions of pounds worth of business is probably being lost each week due to simple spelling mistakes.”

A credibility problem ?

I have to admit I hadn’t thought of this one before, or at least not in monetized terms, anyway. But if you cast your mind back to the most recent piece of “phishing” spam in your inbox, do you remember what tipped you off that it’s spam? Usually it’s some silly mistake in spelling or grammar. And the BBC’s article bears this out…

William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, says that in some informal parts of the internet, such as Facebook, there is greater tolerance towards spelling and grammar. “However, there are other aspects, such as a home page or commercial offering that are not among friends and which raise concerns over trust and credibility.”In these instances, when a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelt word could be a killer issue.”

OK – what can we do to reduce the chance of making spelling mistakes?

Use your spell checkers BUT don’t rely on them totally. They don’t recognise homophones (e.g. to-two-too,) words which correctly spelled but wrong in context, misplaced apostrophes, etc.

Take note of your grammar checkers but don’t take them too seriously, either. Remember they are basically unintelligent machines and don’t always understand the impression you want to convey – especially humor.

Decide whether you will use British or American spellings and stick to it. I know I’m a bit schizoid over which I use in my articles but a) my readers are from all over the world and b) I’m a North American living in the UK … but you probably don’t have those excuses! Be guided by your market and your audience.

Use dictionaries. I find Dictionary.com very helpful because although it’s US-based it normally provides you with the British spellings of words, too. And don’t discard your old printed dictionaries; sometimes it’s quicker and easier to find a word in one of those rather than open up a new window and wait for the internet, if it’s busy or your connection’s bad.

Use a thesaurus if you need inspiration. This way you open up your choice of words and can pick from there knowing that the spellings are correct. I use the dear old Roget or Thesaurus.com.

Take a course in spelling if yours could do with some improvement. I just Googled “spelling courses for adults” and there are over 5 million entries, so shop around and you’re bound to find one that works for you.

As spelling does seem to have become quite an important issue I’ll be adding some more posts on that topic soon. In the meantime if you have any particular spelling questions you’d like me to look into for you, jot them down here in the comments.

Now, make sure your spelling is up to speed

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand




  1. Love this post!

    English is not my mother tongue but I can spot spelling mistakes very quickly. In my last corporate job, my English colleagues would ask me to spell check their letters/emails:-)

    I have lost count of the number of business cards that have spelling mistakes. Sad but true.

    ps. I hope I didn’t make any mistakes above! 🙂

  2. Hi Ebru and you get the gold star – no spelling goofs!

    I feel very angry at the attitude in schools in the UK – once children get into state secondary school all emphasis on spelling goes out of the window. I often used to pick my son up on spelling mistakes and saw that his teachers didn’t correct them.

    When I asked why not, one teacher – an English teacher, too – said “oh, we don’t want to pester them with too many spelling corrections because we believe that interrupts the creative flow.”

    No wonder industry is complaining that school leavers have literacy problems…

    Thanks for your comment! Sz


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