How important is spelling?

Guest writer Jules returns to discuss speling – no seriously!

Jules is a friend and colleague; she volunteers her time and energy to run FirstSigns with me, and it’s great to have her perspectives on writing and communication here at kilobox communiqué.

My dictionary (I just had to glance at it to check whether it’s spelt ‘ary’ or ‘ery’) is very dear to me. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t flick through it for something or other. I know that these days it’s easy to use on-line resources for such things, but the internet will never replace the printed word for me.
But just how important is spelling when it comes to communicating? I’m a perfectionist and I hate to spell things incorrectly, but then I come from an era when it did matter. I was shocked to discover that in the UK these days, spelling isn’t really taken into account when students are graded for their English exams.

Oxbridge educated Richard Wade, a former producer for the BBC, suggests that:

If you can’t remember how to spel a word, spel it how you would like to spel it.

I cringed when I first saw this, but maybe he has a point, and maybe the examining boards do too. Maybe it really is just the content or message that matter.

When I receive emails and letters I don’t worry about spelling in the slightest. I’m not a great speller myself, as the well worn pages of my dictionary prove. But when I’ve paid for a magazine or a book, I expect perfection. When I notice a spelling mistake it bothers me. I wonder why it hasn’t been noticed by someone, I feel a little aggrieved and ask myself ‘who allowed this to happen – give me their job now!’

If an advertisement leaflet contains spelling errors, I question the company or business as a whole. The message I receive about the product or service is clouded by my perception of their reliability to deliver what they promise. I mean, if they can’t even get the leaflet right….!

But I fear I may be wrong. Surely it’s the words themselves, and not how they are spelt, that matters? Is it ludicrous that a simple spelling error should be relevant, when the overall message and communication of a piece is fantastic? Shouldn’t I just be grateful that we haven’t all declined into permanent ‘text talk’?

I worry that my concern for spelling is outdated and really rather arrogant.

Spelling, after all, isn’t easy. The English language is notoriously difficult to master, and that’s largely because our words are unpredictable and confusing. As The Spelling Society amusingly point out, the ‘EE’ sound can be spelt in very many ways:

seem, team, convene; sardine, protein, fiend; people, he, key, ski; debris, quay.

No wonder English is so difficult to learn!

What do you think? Is accurate spelling an important indication of quality and professionalism, or is it an overrated antiquity?


About the author

Jules runs the largest eraser emporium in the world (AFAIK) and you can find out more at
Jules also runs FirstSigns with me, and is a keen writer with an eye for detail like an electron microscope.

  1. I can’t stand it when large companies and organizations send out communications with blatent spelling mistakes within them.

    In this modern age and the use of computers with their wonderful automatic spell checking you would expect it to be a rare thing but it is not. More often than not you can now find communications with American spellings of British English, the simple fact being people rely too much on all knowing computers and don’t check what dictionary version it is using.

    There is of course the exception to the spelling problem as Cambridge University discovered.

  2. As a self-professed grammar ninja (which is two degrees kinder, but one degree more dangerous than a grammar snob)I have to fall strongly on the side of “Spelling Counts!”

    I walk around my daily life mentally copy editing everything from billboards to menus to shop signs to fliers posted on telephone poles – a habit and hazard of my trade.

    My dictionary, thesaurus and AP Style Guide are indispensable tools of the trade.

    Yes, we make all make mistakes. Typos Happen. And I’m a teensy bit more relaxed about it in my “casual” writing (personal emails, text messages, blogs, twitter).

    But I am absolutely mortified when grammatical errors slip into my professional writing or past my professional editing.

    Some of my colleagues think I am a bit over-zealous (thus the “grammar ninja” title). But I would argue that it is not only my job to get it right – and therefore a matter of personal and professional pride – but it is also a matter of the CREDIBILITY of my organization – and not just because I work in public education.

    As Chris pointed out, there is little-to-no excuse for companies and organizations to NOT have perfect copy.

    As a customer or stakeholder, why should I trust your judgment or have faith in your skills if you can’t spell a word associated with your product or service .. or if you don’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its” … or if you can’t seem to master subject-verb agreement?

    Customers SHOULD question the credibility and professionalism of companies that don’t know or don’t care enough to get it right.

    Jules, if you are “outdated” or “arrogant” … I guess I am, too. Grammar Ninjas Unite. :)

  3. Two things.

    Spelling shows attention to detail; if you don’t use a spelling checker, it suggests that you aren’t willing to use tools to assist you. However, relying on a spelling checker without understanding that words that sound the same may have different meanings shows ignorance.

    The greatest dissonance I feel is with the misuse of they’re/their/there or its/it’s. These are basic constructions in English, and if a publication appears with these errors, its value and authority is diminished for me.

    I have had people work for me who exhibited these inabilities; my team and I coached them through this weakness. If you write to anybody, or for anybody, you should not show these failings.

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