- Once is a mistake, but more than one is bordering on carelessness
- A constant, nagging question—was that error a typo or ignorance?
- Less-than-fluent English can make people think twice about doing business with you
- Mistakes affect your perceived authority—too many errors can destroy it immediately
- What steps can you take?
As an English copywriter, proofreader, and former EFL instructor, I constantly evaluate written English. It’s not something I consciously do—it’s something I can’t turn off. Just today, I was reading a site to get information on a task for one of my clients.
A typo jumped out at me. The author had written:
Which is more persuasive? A friend recommending you by their favorite product…?
Spot the mistake? Yeah, it should be “…buy their favourite product.” I brushed it off—everyone makes mistakes. I’ve admitted to several errors in my writing, and that’s despite vigorous proofreading.
And I may be in the minority, but I’m grateful when my readers point out my typos. It’s not that I like people pointing out my mistakes. I don’t think anyone likes that. But when people point out errors in my posts, that means:
- Someone’s actually reading what I’ve written!
- I have an opportunity to remove a mistake from my page and increase my authority.
Either way, it’s a win-win situation. So, I left a comment on that article pointing out the typo. No sarcasm, no snarky judgement. Just letting the author know they had a typo to fix.
Once is a mistake, but more than one is bordering on carelessness
But then, near the end of the article, I found another glaring error. The first one may have slipped by a spell checker, but not this one.
Ak those clients for referrals
I’m sure you figured out it should be, “Ask those clients for referrals.” Ak wouldn’t slip by a spellchecker. Especially if you follow my suggestion to use your built-in spellchecker and Grammarly. But with that second error, three things happened:
- I wrote another comment pointing out the second typo.
- I started to doubt if the author was an authority on the topic covered in the post.
- I began to wonder if English was their native language.
I started looking at the writing from a different perspective. I looked for awkward phrases and word choices. I hunted for more typos and errors. I didn’t find any, and my brief research into the author of the piece indicated he is a native English speaker. An English native speaker that needs to proofread a little more.
But those two minor errors in a roughly 1,000-word post did two things:
- It made me doubt their authority.
- It distracted me from the message of their post.
Last week, I wrote about how poor copy destroys trust. It happens with people writing in their native language. Imagine how much worse it is when writing in a foreign language.
Fair or not, non-native speakers are judged more harshly than native speakers. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree on whether it’s right or not. But you have to accept it. If you ignore it, it’ll only harm you.
A constant, nagging question—was that error a typo or ignorance?
When a native speaker makes a mistake, it was a typo. That’s the assumption 99.99% of the time. In the first example above, it’s easy to see how someone could’ve omitted the ‘u’ in ‘buy.’ The author more than likely knows the difference between ‘by’ and ‘buy.’
What about the non-native speaker? If a non-native speaker makes the same mistake, was it a typo or a lack of grammar knowledge? It could be either. But because we’re talking about a non-native speaker, the chances that it’s the latter are greater.
When I make a mistake in my writing, it’s a typo—a brain fart. I know better, but either due to carelessness or lack of time, I made a mistake. Oops! As they say, “Shit happens!”
But when a non-native speaker makes a mistake, was it the same careless typo? Or was it a mistake they made because their language level wasn’t sufficient? Most of the time, when non-native speakers make mistakes in written form, it is assumed they didn’t know ‘the rules.’
There are lots of native English speakers who make mistakes because they don’t know the rules. Spend time online, and you’ll see native speakers making mistakes with to/too, there/their, or could of/could have. But these are not the kinds of mistakes that non-native speakers make.
They make mistakes with verb tenses, prepositions, and articles. When people see these errors, it’s assumed a non-native speaker made them. So why does that matter?
Less-than-fluent English can make people think twice about doing business with you
Once they figure out you’re not a native speaker, people may have reservations about doing business with you. Not because of racial or cultural bias (though I’m sure that unfortunately does happen). It’s for the same reason I often have difficulty getting a taxi in Seoul.
Anticipated communication problems. Taxi drivers usually prefer to pick up Korean passengers. Why? Because they expect it’ll be much easier to communicate. Seeing my big, hairy, white face, taxi drivers quickly identify me as a foreigner. They assume it’s going to be harder to communicate with me.
I’m by no means fluent, but I have no problem telling taxi drivers where I want to go. But they don’t know that. And the person viewing your website doesn’t know how well you can communicate in English. But they’re making the same assumption as the taxi driver.
The taxi driver is making an assumption based on past experiences. He/she has picked up several foreign passengers. Each with varying degrees of Korean language ability. The majority likely struggle with Korean, or at least Korean pronunciation. It’s added stress for the cab driver trying to determine the destination. With a native Korean speaking fare, it would be a piece of cake.
If potential customers have had any interactions with non-native speakers involving communication problems, they assume the same thing will happen with you. But like I have no problems once in a Korean cab, you may have no trouble communicating in English.
The trick is to get over that first hump. Once we establish a relationship with someone, we tend to work together to resolve issues. But if you never establish that relationship, you make it harder on yourself to get to that stage.
Mistakes affect your perceived authority—too many errors can destroy it immediately
I started to doubt the author’s authority from the site I mentioned earlier. Likewise, errors will decrease your perceived authority, even if you’re a leader in your field. Think about your own experiences. How did you feel in class when a teacher or professor said something you knew was incorrect?
You immediately started to question what else they were wrong about. Everything else they told you could’ve been entirely true. But that one errant statement planted seeds of doubt about everything they’d taught you.
You likely wouldn’t discount everything they’d taught. But you’d probably want to re-examine some points that had come up in class. Things you’d initially accepted, even though they seemed farfetched. After all, they are the authority. They must be more knowledgeable than me!
These preconceptions may not be fair—but they exist. Hopefully, they will change over time, but we still need to be aware of them. I also hope that native and non-native speakers will take the time to proofread their work.
There’s nothing wrong with doing a good job. Being grammatically correct is never a bad thing. I can’t think of any instance where someone’s authority on a subject took a hit because their writing was error-free.
What steps can you take?
First of all, use a native English copywriter or proofreader to write or edit your website or emails. Remember the importance of establishing that client relationship. Once established, it’s much easier to work together. But you’ve got to get over that first hump first.
I keep saying new clients form their first impression of your business based on their first contact. That’s usually in the form of your website, a blog post, or an email. Give yourself the best chance for success with error-free, natural-sounding copy. If you think I could be of help to you, fill out the form below to explore your options.
(Follow up: I must give credit to the author of the piece I referenced at the beginning of this post. He corrected the typos in the article—I checked 😉. And once no longer distracted by typos, I absorbed the information in the post and found it quite helpful. Also, much to my surprise, both Grammarly and the spellchecker in Google Docs missed ‘Ak.’ Neither one picked up on “A friend recommending you by their favorite product” either.)