Why do people treat spelling and punctuation as such a big deal?

By Gordon Rugg

This one has a nice, easy answer: Legal implications. Spelling and punctuation can have huge legal implications that in turn can have huge financial implications.

That, however, raises the question of just what those legal implications are. Again, there’s a nice, clear answer, but unpacking it will involve a couple of examples; one for spelling, and one for punctuation. Here are those examples.

bannerAttributions for images are given at the end of this article


The first image shows the familiar yo-yo. Or should that be Yo-Yo? Nowadays, it’s yo-yo, but this wasn’t always the case, and the difference was worth millions of dollars.

Yo-yos have been around for thousands of years, as illustrated in the classical Greek image above. The name Yo-Yo (with uppercase “Y”s) was trademarked in 1932 by an American entrepreneur called Donald F. Duncan. That name was significant, because it meant that only the Yo-Yos from his company could legally be advertised with that name. This is one of the huge advantages of having a trademark; if the trademark name becomes synonymous with the produce, then it’s excellent free marketing and brand identity (e.g. Biro and Hoover). This is one reason that any company with a trademark and any shred of business sense will defend that trademark very vigorously indeed.

So what did Duncan do with his trademark? He quite frequently referred to his product in writing as a “yo-yo” (with lowercase “y”s). This was a significant issue when a competitor started describing their own product as a “yo-yo” (lowercase). Duncan lost the subsequent copyright case, because the judge ruled that he had, in effect, thrown away the protected version of the name by repeatedly treating the name as a common noun rather than a proper noun. The loss in revenue and related costs ran into the millions.

That’s an example of spelling causing problems. What about punctuation? It, too, is a rich source of woe.


The second image above shows Venice, a classic destination for romantic holidays.

How much does it cost to holiday there? For a very brief period, you could get a hotel room in Venice for under two euros. As you might suspect, that price wasn’t what the hotel actually intended, but when the room was advertised for 1.50 euros instead of 150 euros, the hotel had to honour the advertised price. As you might also suspect, quite a few people took them up on that offer; the estimated cost to the hotel was 90,000 euros.


It’s a more glamorous case than most, but it’s far from unique. Here’s a more impressive example, where the error cost the company about $220 million:

The Japanese government has ordered an inquiry after stock market trading in a newly-listed company was thrown into chaos by a broker’s typing error.

Shares in J-Com fell to below their issue price after the broker at Mizuho Securities tried to sell 610,000 shares at 1 yen (0.47 pence; 0.8 cents) each.

They had meant to sell one share for 610,000 yen (£2,893; $5,065). http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4512962.stm

Is this fair?

The financial implications of spelling and punctuation errors can be huge. However, there are broader questions.

One obvious question involves dyslexia. A lot of people have various forms of problem with reading, writing, spelling and related issues. Is it fair to discriminate against them in employment?

A less obvious, but equally far-reaching, question involves cultural conventions. Different cultures have different conventions for indicating decimals, dates, etc. In the UK and the USA, for instance, the convention is that commas separate thousands, and a full stop (period) is used to show where the decimals begin. Is this the only convention? As you might guess, there’s a whole, rich world of different conventions, and a whole, rich world of misunderstandings arising from these differences.

So, I don’t think it’s particularly fair. The education system and the law have made some attempts to handle the situation, for instance by allowing students to use proof readers in some situations, and by making explicit allowances for dyslexia in marking assessed work. Quite what else to do about it is another question, and I don’t have a brilliant answer. However, I hope that this article will make more sense of why employers treat spelling and punctuation as such a big deal, and that it will spark some useful thoughts about how to handle this issue.

Notes, sources and links

“Yo-yo player Antikensammlung Berlin F2549” by User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2008. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yo-yo_player_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2549.jpg#/media/File:Yo-yo_player_Antikensammlung_Berlin_F2549.jpg

“Canal Grande Chiesa della Salute e Dogana dal ponte dell Accademia” by This Photo was taken by Wolfgang Moroder.Feel free to use my photos, but please mention me as the author and send me a message. – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canal_Grande_Chiesa_della_Salute_e_Dogana_dal_ponte_dell_Accademia.jpg#/media/File:Canal_Grande_Chiesa_della_Salute_e_Dogana_dal_ponte_dell_Accademia.jpg





3 thoughts on “Why do people treat spelling and punctuation as such a big deal?

  1. Pingback: Teacher Humour: Why spelling matters | hyde and rugg

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