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Warning

Spelling affects sales (and saves lives)

I was reading a youth-focused science journal the other day that included some letters published verbatim from school children in grade 11 and 12.

I do not expect English from second-language English speakers in rural or semi-rural schools to be any better than my Matric-level Afrikaans, which was pretty bad. But one of the letters could not be understood without a great deal of effort. And the haphazard use of capitals and punctuation suggested carelessness rather than ignorance.

I doubt that I would have dared to write to an Afrikaans magazine, so I salute the courage of these youngsters. But had I written, I would have had someone read over it; preferably a teacher. Goodness! My wife checks these articles for me, and my English is pretty good.

Why did the teachers think it okay to send such a letter? If the teacher didn’t see it, why did the child think it was okay to send it without having someone check that it made sense? And if a journal (even a funky one aimed at youth) publishes such a letter, doesn’t it encourage the idea that communication is not important?

English is not simply one of the subjects we are tormented with at school. Language is the subject that makes sense of all the others; through it we communicate our passion, dreams, values and discoveries. If we don’t take language seriously, we will not be able to make sense or help others make sense of science, history, mathematics or anything else that drives us.

Science is meaningless without an effective means of communicating the exciting discoveries being made. Our most sensational discoveries remain hidden if we cannot explain them clearly and discuss them coherently.

As long as students see English (or any language) as ‘just another Matric subject’, instead of a critical tool for communicating what we discover in the other subjects, communication will take a backseat.

Two things are important: meaning and tone.

What do I mean? Precisely what do I want? Is it clear? None of us is as clear as we think we are. As they say, even the lowly comma can save a life. Did he say, “Let’s eat Grandma.’ or ‘Let’s eat, Grandma.’ And spelling is important. An applicant whose CV I received did not mean to tell me that she had been couched by the Marketing Manager; or if she did, I didn’t want to know.

As for tone, if an angry and demanding tone is going to produce a defensive and uncooperative response, it is important to inject humility and remove all trace of demand. I once asked a colleague to contact another manager to help us fix a problem we had created. I asked her to apologise and ask for help. I later overheard her on the phone saying, ‘Ian says you need to fix this mess.’ If we can’t get the tone right in conversation, we will not get the written form right.

Communication is not something to get done with as soon as possible. It is something to spend time on because it is the only way we will get things done – more important, get what we want done, the way we want it.

Charles Duncombe of the Just Say Please Group found that sales on a website doubled when a spelling mistake was corrected. Customers link poor spelling to the company’s credibility (The Witness, 21 July 2014).

Since most of us associate errors with email scams, our customers are likely to do the same. Make it a habit to have someone check your communication. The more important the communication, the more seriously you should take the proof-reading process.

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Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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