“Theirs a new project I’d like to discuss with you. Its a weigh to catch misspellings but to long to go into hear. Lets meet.”
It’s unlikely you’ve ever received an email or other written message with that many spelling problems. But there are surely words in those three sentences that you’ve seen misspelled, and most probably you have misspelled some of them yourself.
Notice that the only real “spelling demon” in the message is the word “misspellings,” and that has been spelled correctly. Why? Because if the writer had made the common mistake of writing “mispellings,” the autocorrect function would have flagged it. Not so with “theirs,” “its,” “weigh,” “to,” “hear” and “lets.” They are all perfectly good English words as written and pass muster with most spell-checker applications; the problem is, each is a homonym of the word the writer intended to use.
If you do a quick proofread of what you’ve written, you may catch these slips, but because you’ve written it yourself, it’s likely that you’ll overlook them because those are your own thoughts, written moments before. That important boss you’ve sent the note to probably won’t miss the mistake, however, and that little error could undermine his confidence in you. What Mark Twain said about word choice is just as appropriate here: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
Even if your target audience is not your boss or a colleague, even if you’re the CEO of a large corporation writing to your associates, spelling errors in written communications inevitably diminish the forcefulness of your ideas and tarnish your stature in the eyes of your readers. It’s human nature. We stop reading for a few seconds and shake our heads when we hit that misspelling, and later it’s likely we’ll remember you made that error in your message just as well as we remember the content of the message.
How, then, do you avoid writing “principle” when you mean “principal” or “affect” when you mean “effect”? There is no sure-fire method, but there are several steps you can take to lessen your chances of letting a mistake go unnoticed. The most effective way is to let someone who is a good proofreader go over your writing. But since this is often impossible to do, you need to proofread it yourself with homophone errors in mind. If you are prone to such errors, you can easily download lists of common homophone errors from the Internet, and these lists can truly help you recognize problem words. The more you write and proofread with them in mind, the more you will avoid misusing them.
The issue is different for those among a growing minority who have been diagnosed as dyslexic. For people with dyslexia, spelling is always a severe trial; because their brains compute differently, they can never become good spellers. This is surely a burden, but they are in very good company — Da Vinci, Lincoln, Churchill, Einstein, Hemingway and J.F. Kennedy, to name just a few bad spellers from a long list. Charles Schwab didn’t learn there was a name for his problem until he was 40. But, like Schwab, most successful business executives who are dyslexic send out nearly error-free prose because they recognize their language problems and get proofreading help, or they’ve developed their own personal strategies to combat them.
Knowing how to spell is crucial in professional communications. People may accept a few improperly spelled words in email that carries the words “Sent from my iPhone,” but if they catch errors repeatedly, it can have a serious effect on professional performance. Whether you were born dyslexic or a gifted speller, remember: Your writing is not going to be as effective or influential if it contains spelling errors.
Jim Halverson, retired from a career teaching in private schools, is the author of Spelling Works: New and Improved Lessons and Mazes to Help Students Master Spelling Rules and Spot Their Own Errors. Halverson developed the techniques over decades of teaching students how to spell. But there is no age limit on spelling problems, and he shares with In Business Magazine readers a strategy to help ensure their communication reflects well on their professional capabilities.