Some consequences of bad spelling

by Eszter Hargittai on February 7, 2004

Last week, the New York Times had a piece about the potential monetary losses resulting from bad spelling. The author discusses how some misspelled auction items on eBay sell for very little because few bidders find them.

Reading about the frequency of spelling mistakes on the Web was no shock to me. In fact, the geek that I am, I even ran analyses [pdf] in my dissertation to see what explains whether and how often people misspell words during their online actions.

I should take a step back and explain my project. I study people’s Web-use skills. For my dissertation project, I collected data on one hundred Internet users’ online abilities. Participants were a random sample of the Mercer County (NJ) Internet population. Although these people are more educated and come from families with higher income than the average American Internet user, the sample was likely representative of the county’s Net users. (I say “likely” because it is practically impossible to know for sure, but I did as much background research as possible to establish that this is highly likely.. see my dissertation (or contact me) for more on that.)

I asked people to come to a university research setting and perform tasks online. I asked them to look for various things (political candidate information, tax forms, local events, etc.) and recorded everything they did. Many of them made spelling mistakes. This certainly slowed people down, and in some cases it also meant that they were unable to complete certain tasks.

No one asked, but since I had the data, I figured I’d look to see what explains why some people make spelling mistakes and how often. I found [pdf] that those with less education were more likely to make spelling mistakes. However, the effect of education seemed to be mediated by computer use at work and experience with the Web. Regarding number of spelling mistakes, age also seemed to matter (older people made more mistakes), but again, computer use at work and experience with the Web mediated this effect. Explaining differences in typographical errors was a bit more interesting, but I’ll leave it to you to check that out on the tables. (I included a table with information about participants’ demographics in that file in case that’s of interest.)

In a forthcoming paper, I list some more examples of common mistakes people make online such as spaces in URLs, no spaces in multiple-term search queries, and mistaken top-level domain-name extensions. More importantly, I describe the classification and coding scheme I used for coding people’s online actions. Send me a note if you’d like a copy.

As for attempts by Google and others to highlight to people that they are making a spelling mistake, it’s useful to some but not to others. My experience observing dozens of average users was that many people don’t see such hints and because results show up even in response to misspelled queries people do not realize they made a mistake and proceed.. often not to the best of sources.



Keith M Ellis 02.07.04 at 2:16 am

I was a terrible speller when I was young, a great mystery to parents and educators since I was a precocious reader. I’ve had to slowly but surely correct my spelling (in general) as I’ve aged, but I still make far too many errors. Last month Josh Marshall stunned me and linked to one of my blog entries…and, it figures, I hadn’t spell-checked it. The first two comments were complaints about my spelling. I felt like an idiot.

I love Google’s spelling correction feature. I am very aware of it and use it for its intended purpose as well as a quick and handy spell-checker when I am uncertain about specific words.

My intuition is that bad spellers greatly underestimate the social costs of their bad spelling. Resumes are the obvious example; but my perusing online personal ads provides another: I judge people pretty harshly. Some egregious misspelling and I cross them off my list. Which, possibly, is just fine with them.


Randy 02.07.04 at 4:56 am

I am surprised at how many highly-educated bloggers apparently don’t understand the proper usage of affect and effect.


fyreflye 02.07.04 at 5:36 am

FWIW most of the bargains I’ve found on eBay received too few bids because they were listed in the wrong category.


Chris Bertram 02.07.04 at 11:27 am

I was once told of a dyslexic anarchist who was arrested after spray-painting SAMSH THE STATE! all over town – now there’s a consequence of bad spelling.


Michael Kremer 02.07.04 at 2:35 pm


“extensions,” not “extentions”…

Which just goes to show that we all make mistakes and that it’s pretty hard to catch them when we make them.

(Or, possibly, this was a test, part of your research…)


eszter 02.07.04 at 11:53 pm

Thanks, Michael. It’s all part of research.;)

I think it’s interesting that English is supposed to be a really easy language (and in many ways it is), but some things are so non-intuitive. My native language (Hungarian) is quite hard, but at least some things are consistent (e.g. it’s phonetic, which means spelling is relatively straight-forward for the most part.. although there are exceptions, but just a few once you’re learned the basic rulse). For me it’s not intuitive why extensions is with an s not a t.. which, of course, does not mean I shouldn’t know how to spell it, I’m just trying to figure out why I would’ve made the mistake.

[UPDATE: I’ve corrected the spelling in the post.]


nnyhav 02.08.04 at 4:44 am

Misspellings in the lead editorials in the Wall Street Journal so far this year:

1) Confusing “jives” with “jibes” deserves gibes.

2) If anyone should know better than to confuse “principal” with “principle” … uh, wait, on second thought …


Dan Goodman 02.08.04 at 7:44 am

My grandfather, who grew up in Tsarist Poland, once mentioned that his first job in the US had been writing correspondence for a furniture company. I asked if he hadn’t had trouble with spelling.

He explained why he hadn’t. One year, his Hebrew school had had a teacher who was literate in Polish.
So, besides his Hebrew education, he’d had a year of learning to read and write Polish. Since Polish and English used the same alphabet, anyone who could spell one language could spell the other.


Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 11:50 am

“Since Polish and English used the same alphabet, anyone who could spell one language could spell the other.”

Could you elaborate on that? I don’t understand.


TomD 02.08.04 at 5:17 pm

Maybe it was a joke!


Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 6:25 pm

Indeed it probably was. In contrast to Hebrew. Aha.

That’s twice recently on CT I didn’t realize something was a joke. I’m not this humourless in real life. Really. I promise.

I do hate puns, though.


dave heasman 02.09.04 at 3:11 pm

“For me it’s not intuitive why extensions is with an s not a t”

It isn’t intuitive, it’s Latin. I hope.


LA 02.09.04 at 10:00 pm

I cheered when I saw your post. That effect/affect problem is one that I notice all the time. It’s really irritating. I feel like one of these days I’m going to be infected by it and no longer know how to use them correctly.

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