As a copywriter, I would love to start this article by saying I never make mistakes. But that would be an outright lie. Being a professional writer doesn’t make you immune from making human error. Things slip through the net. And I’m sure I’ve probably made some clangers in my time. Fortunately for me (and my job security), I’ve never (yet) made one that cost MoreNiche £8.8 million in lost revenue.
But it did happen to one unfortunate company.
How one spelling mistake destroyed a 134-year-old family business
Taylor & Sons Ltd was a respected, family run engineering firm based in Cardiff. Established in 1875 and built up by five generations, it had been in business for over a century, employed 250 people and was budgeted to turn over £40m in 2009. It was safe to say, business was going well.
That is, until the 20th February 2009, when the future of the company was about to be irreparably damaged.
On holiday in the Maldives to celebrate his wife’s 50th birthday, unsuspecting managing director and co-owner, Philip Davison-Sebry, received a phone call from the furious boss of one of his biggest clients – whose business was bringing in £400,000 a month – demanding a meeting the next day.
“What are you doing away at a time like this? Your company is in liquidation!”
Naturally, Davison-Sebry’s first thought was that this was a wind-up. Until the steel boss went on to read a document over the phone saying that Taylor & Sons was being wound up by HMRC. To his horror, Davison-Sebry began to realise that being wound up… might not actually be a wind-up.
“If you’re not in liquidation, you soon will be,” the steel boss warned.
It turned out he wasn’t wrong.
So what the heck had happened?
Companies House, the UK government’s registrar of companies, had indeed recorded Taylor & Sons Ltd as having gone bust.
But the company that had actually gone under was an entirely different and completely unrelated one – Taylor & Son Ltd.
The consequences were devastating.
Davison-Sebry described the immediate fallout as “Armageddon”.
“Back at the business the phones were ringing out… everyone wanted to be paid. People were queuing up for money. Equipment was being taken off the site.”
Companies House corrected the mistake within three days. But the damage had been done. They had already sold the false information to various credit reference agencies – something they had actually failed to tell Taylor & Sons.
This, combined with the fact that anyone can sign up to receive email updates from Companies House on any company, meant that news spread fast.
The company’s credibility was completely destroyed.
Customers terminated their orders, contracts were lost, and lenders shut down all their credit facilities. Within just two months, despite desperate attempts to reassure suppliers and customers, the entire company had fallen apart. On 9th April 2009, Taylor & Sons Ltd went into liquidation.
250 members of staff lost their jobs and the company owners had lost their livelihood.
Obviously, they sued. After a four-year battle, a judge ruled that Companies House was legally responsible for the demise of the firm, and ordered them to pay damages.
That one letter “s” ruined an entire business, and cost Companies House £8.8 million.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY – PRICEY PROOFING FAILS
Think this type of major screw-up is a one-off? Think again. Typographical mistakes are costing businesses millions of dollars every year.
According to online entrepreneur Charles Duncombe, a single spelling mistake could cut online sales by as much as half. Yes, half.
He found that revenue to tightsplease.co.uk increased by 50% after a mistake was corrected. If this example was applied across all online retailers, just imagine the impact that spelling and grammar mistakes could be having across the board. Millions of dollars worth of business down the drain… all because someone didn’t bother to proofread their content.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some more costly clangers from businesses that learned the hard way what can happen when you don’t check your spelling.
NASA – The most expensive hyphen in history
The Damage – $80 million
In July 1962, the absence of a single dash led to catastrophic failure for NASA’s Mariner 1 probe. America’s first interplanetary probe was on a mission to do a fly-by of close neighbour, Venus. But the coding used to set the craft’s launch trajectory and speed was missing a hyphen. And that led to the rocket carrying the probe veering off course, forcing Mission Control to abort the launch. It was too late to fix, and 293 seconds after lift off, Mariner 1 was blown up.
It’s now widely regarded as the most expensive typographical mistake of all time. Which, I think we can all agree, is pretty embarrassing for the NASA programmer who made that epic screw-up.
Penguin Publishing – International outrage sparked by pasta recipe
The Damage – $20,000
How does tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto sound to you? Pretty tasty? (Unless you’re a vegetarian.) You can find the recipe in The Pasta Bible. It calls for some salt and freshly ground black pepper. But if you own a 2010 version of the book published by Penguin Australia, you might find a very different recommendation as to how to season the dish. The – presumably rather red-faced – printers were forced to quickly destroy all 7,000 remaining copies in its inventory and quell a PR disaster after it was spotted that pasta chefs were being advised to season with “salt and freshly ground black people”.
Yellow Pages – X-Rated Exotic Vacations
The Damage – $10 million
In 1988, Yellow Pages found themselves out of pocket big-time after they were sued for $10 million by Banner Travel Services for a typo. The small travel company had decided to run a $230 per month ad in the phone book. It nearly ended up costing them much more than that. When they saw the printed ad, they were understandably not too thrilled at all to see that their “exotic vacations” were in fact being advertised as “erotic vacations”. They sued, and the $10 million Yellow Pages was forced to pay nearly put them out of business.
Rogers Communications – The comma that destroyed a contract
The Damage – $2.13 million
A misplaced comma spelled disaster for Canadian cable television provider Rogers Communications back in 2002. A five-year agreement was signed with fellow communications company, Bell Aliant, for the use of Bell’s transmission poles. The contract was to be renewed automatically for five years unless the agreement was cancelled with one year’s notice before the end of the initial five years. But Bell Aliant was able to cancel the contract much sooner than Rogers Communications had anticipated, because of the second comma in the following sentence:
“[This Agreement] shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
The regulator ruled that the additional comma meant that the contract could be terminated at any time with one year’s notice. It cost Rogers $2.3 million. Proof that it pays not to underestimate the power of a comma.
PROOFREADING… IT’S KIND OF A BIG DEAL.
Of course, these are all extreme examples of what can happen when you don’t check your spelling. It’s unlikely (I hope) that any typo you make would cost you or the company you work for millions.
But, regardless, the moral of the story is the same. Before you publish anything, whether it’s on or offline, check it. And then check it again.
Don’t stop there. Check it again.
Because spelling is crucial to the credibility of any website. As Charles Duncombe (the one who did the study on the tightsplease site) points out:
“When there are underlying concerns about fraud and safety, then getting the basics right is essential.”
Because, unlike when talking to a salesperson in-store or over the phone, online selling is all done through the written word. Which means your website visitors are going to form their opinions of you based entirely on what you write.
When you work online, publishing content in a speedy manner is often critical. So it’s easy to ‘publish now, fix errors later’, especially if your website is small and you don’t get much traffic. You might think that you can get away with it. “What’s the worst that can happen?” you ask yourself.
You’ve read the horror stories above. Do you really want to run the risk with your (or someone else’s) business? The fact is, people will spot mistakes, they will almost certainly call you out on them, you will look silly, and it will affect your credibility.
Cameron Fennell, senior proofreader at brand marketing agency Six Degrees, has written a fantastic article called The High Cost of Small Mistakes: The Most Expensive Typos of all Time. In it, he sums up perfectly the consequences of failing to proofread:
“In an age of global exposure and instantaneous connectivity, errors in written communications can have a hugely negative impact on consumer perceptions and create a lasting impression of carelessness. They can sabotage a first impression, reduce credibility, compromise brand positioning and diminish reputations. They undermine the clarity of branded messaging, create confusion, suggest poor communication skills and convey a lack of attention to detail. They can result in misleading or factually inaccurate information and cause consumers to question the integrity behind offerings or the abilities of a brand they perceive as uneducated and unprofessional. The possible ways in which a seemingly trivial typing mistake can have an enormous financial impact on a brand are immeasurable.”
The fact is, spelling and grammar errors, no matter how small, don’t go unnoticed. And even if it doesn’t cost you revenue – or your business, careless spelling and grammar could just make you a laughing stock of the internet:
12 TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE PROOFREADING
The most sure-fire way to ensure your work gets published error-free is by having a trained proofreader take a look at it. But if you’re not in a position to hire a professional proofreader (and let’s face it, many of us aren’t, not to mention the fact that it’s just not practical or possible to have someone else proofread every single thing you write online) here’s what you should know about proofreading your own work:
Take a break – Leave a gap of at least a few hours – if not overnight – before proofreading. Otherwise, your work will be too fresh in your mind and you’ll only see the words you think you wrote rather than what you actually wrote.
Remove distractions – Concentration is crucial here. So shut down your email and social media, turn off the TV and music, and get down to it.
Print it out – After you’ve done a first round on-screen, print out your text and review it again. Sounds like a waste of time? Try it. You’ll be surprised at how many mistakes you didn’t spot the first time.
Cover it up – Use a piece of paper to cover everything but the line you are reading, or a place a ruler under each line as you work. This will force your brain to concentrate on just that line rather than skipping ahead.
Slow it down – Read each word and every sentence slowly and carefully. This isn’t the time for skim reading. Trust no word and don’t take anything for granted.
Read it aloud – If you’re alone (or even if you’re not and you don’t mind sounding like a crazy person), reading aloud is a particularly useful proofreading method.
Read it backwards – What you’re reading won’t make any sense, but it will force you to spot any words that are spelled incorrectly.
Never trust spellcheck – A spell checker will tell you if a word is indeed a word, but not if it’s the right word to use in that context. Don’t rely on it; it can never be fully trusted. (If you must use a spell checker, I recommend Grammarly.)
Track frequent mistakes – Even experienced writers will accidentally mix up there, their and they’re; to, too and two; its and it’s, and your and you’re. Don’t think you’re immune to it.
Always fact check – Double-check names, dates, figures and facts. It’s tempting to skip over them and easy to assume you got them right first time. Don’t fall for it.
Check consistency – If you use the word “email”, don’t suddenly switch to “e-mail” later. Using full stops at the end of bullet points? Keep them consistent. The same goes for headings and capitalisations etc.
Do it again – Think once is enough? You’ll find more errors on the second and even third time around. Trust me. Check, check, and then triple-check everything.
Use the tips above and you might be in with a chance of catching at least the majority of those pesky typos!
Because that’s the thing about writing. No matter how many times you proofread, one of those suckers is always bound to slip through. It happens to everyone. Even those of us who write for a living.
It’s ok to make mistakes. But it’s not ok to not check and recheck your work before publishing anything in the public domain. Because as you’ve now learned, one moment of carelessness could easily cost you more than you’d bargained for, and, in the words of Philip Davison-Sebry from Taylor & Sons Ltd, leave you feeling like you’ve been “kicked in the b******s”.
You have been warned.
Is poor quality content costing you sales? Find out more about how 59% of consumers say they wouldn’t buy something from a company with bad grammar or spelling mistakes on their site, and how one study showed that almost 70% of big brands are producing low-quality content.