Should Web Editors Correct Customers’ Grammar?

By Maeve Maddox

One of our readers who works as a Web Content Editor raises an interesting question concerning the handling of customer comments on a product web site:

Should comments posted by customers be edited for glaring errors of spelling and grammar?

Consider, for example, the following customer recommendation for an imaginary product:

I recomend the Ajax router for it’s ease in accessing the web and because outside interference hardly ever effects it. Your gonna love it.

Should the editor in charge of the site publish the comment as it stands, or should the editor silently correct the spelling, punctuation and grammar errors before publishing it?

The reader who posed this question describes two points of view that prevail at one place of business.

View One
Basic errors of usage and spelling “make the review and comments appear more genuine and believable to the common man.”

View Two
A prospective customer reading a comment that contains errors will be disinclined to think favorably of a product recommended by “someone who can’t differentiate between your and you’re.”

The person who holds View Two would not alter an idiomatic expression that is clearly a matter of personal expression, but would, for example, change Your gonna love it to You’re gonna love it!

My View
Except for those who imagine that standard English is a form of class oppression, most people, I think, would like to be correct in their writing.

On many sites a person submitting a comment has no opportunity to correct errors after the comment has been submitted. Frequently a person may realize at once that your should have been you’re, but, rather than submit an “oops” message, shrugs and hopes that readers will overlook the error.

View One reveals some condescending attitudes:
1. “the common man” is ignorant of correct English usage.
2. Potential customers, being “common men,” either
a. won’t notice the errors, or
b. will notice the errors, but find them acceptable.

I prefer View Two, because such a policy would avoid alienating customers who cringe consciously or unconsciously at semi-literate written expression.

People in the business of selling ought to know that potential buyers can be turned off by unconscious reactions that have absolutely nothing to do with the product.

A product page sprinkled with error-ridden customer comments can produce an unconscious aversion to the product being described.

My advice to the Content Editor is this:

Assume that the person intended to write correctly. Make the corrections as an act of kindness.

My reasoning:
1. A truly ignorant person won’t notice.
2. The person who knows better, but was in a hurry, will appreciate the corrections.
3. Potential customers who are annoyed by basic errors won’t be repulsed.

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26 Responses to “Should Web Editors Correct Customers’ Grammar?”

  • OldSailor

    Originality of the customer comments must be retained. At the most a clarification on the comments by the web editor may be given.

  • Jaguar

    I read a blog that allows the users to edit their own comments after submitting them. If a user submits a comment with a typo, he/she can correct him/herself.

    Here’s a link to the plugin: http://www.raproject.com/wordpress/wp-ajax-edit-comments/

  • Tom Connolly

    There is yet another reason to correct the text before posting: Allowing errors to stand tends to perpetuate them by making them more acceptable. If his title is Web Content Editor, shouldn’t he edit?

  • Alice

    I appreciate your take on this subject. It’s something I’ve often felt concerned about. I DO react to incorrect grammar and spelling.

  • Ray Fowler

    I correct any typos or spelling errors that I notice in the comments section on my blog. I do not correct grammar, word order or word choice. I treat the comment as spoken communication, so I do not change what the person “said,” but as a kindness to my commenters, I try to present their words in the best possible light.

  • Ron

    There is another view of clearly displaying your policy.

    Policy 1: Recognizing that the user has an urgent problem emphasizing response time over editing time, we often edit for clarity for subsequent readers.

    Policy 2: Recognizing that the user has an urgent problem emphasizing response time over editing time, we do not edit for grammar in case we have misread the email.

  • Chris

    As a would-writer, I post about grammar issues often. I’m one of those readers who would be annoyed and distracted by poor grammar. I vote view 2. Whether or not you agree, comments also reflect on you as the blogger and the type of audience your blog attracts. And as you say, I believe don’t intentionally make spelling errors. Misspelling happens.

  • Julie

    I agree with your advice, as well as with the suggestion to display the policy. The submitter then knows that errors will be edited and can choose to submit or not.

  • Gabrielle

    Hahaha! If they have something nice to say, edit it to make the commentor look intelligent; if something nasty, to create even more errors and show them to be an illiterate, incompetent know-nothing.

    For my own part, I’d always be grateful for an editor who cleaned up my inadvertant mistakes. I always cringe when a typo can’t be edited out afterward.

  • Charlie

    I would go with #2. Make the spelling and usage corrections, but leave the punctuation stand. When checking out a business on the web, if I find typos and major grammatical errors I look no further. Slow down and read what you have typed before you push the submit button. You can be judged by what you type and post. Just like I can be from this entry.

  • Maeve

    Jaguar,
    Thanks for the link to the editing plug in. Great idea.

    There are a lot of thoughtful comments here.

    Tom, you make a very good point about letting errors stand perpetuting the problem.

    It seems to me that since standard English is under assault from so many directions, those of us who have been fortunate enough to become fully literate ought to be glad to do what we can to replace incorrect forms with the correct ones whenever we can.

  • LuAnn

    I’m one that wonders about comments that are ‘too perfect’ in grammar and spelling as that is not what I see in real life. If they change the commenters posts what would convince me that they won’t ‘sweeten’ the comment in their favor?

    Life is what it is! Give me honesty, not rewritten history! And don’t correct me, I’ve fallible.

  • Alex

    On the other hand, there are many sites where people from all the world can post, but not everybody speaks English equally well. While some people won’t mind that their posts get edited and may even want it, other people may not like it.

    I think, any website that allows comments should have guidelines for the posting that clarify beforehand how and to what extend posts may be edited. It is common to delete irrelevant posts, and edit posts for offensive/illegal content. If the end user has been made aware of these policies, then editing should be no problem, as long as the content and original idea are kept. However, I think a note indicating the editing should be included, like [This post was edited for basic grammar and spelling mistakes].

    If the post is so messed up, that the editor would need to rewrite the whole thing, I’d leave it unchanged and add a note at the end.

  • Paul

    I agree with Ray. Correct any typos or spelling errors but do not correct grammar, word order or word choice. Treat the comment as spoken communication, do not change what the person “said,” but as a kindness to the commenters, try to present their words in the best possible light.

  • Dan

    I think there is information contained in the errors that is valuable to the consumer. If you are the content editor of a retail website, I urge you to leave the comments as they are. They are subtle hints about who the review writer is, their attention to detail, and what values they may have in common with the reader.

    I can normally discern between a simple typo or two and a review that was written by a 13 year old AOL user. [Do those still exist?] If you’ve edited the content, you take away my ability to make that deduction. This is key, because someone who makes a mistake writing a review may or may not be a thoughtful consumer who appreciates a great product. A 13 year old AOL user is most likely not.

    When someone takes the time and effort to spell- and grammar-check their review it speaks of the passion they felt when they wrote it. If you are editing that review then you are falsely adding the illusion of care put into the reviewer’s words.

    A careful consumer pays attention to details, and trusts other consumers who do the same. Given this, I think that it’s unethical to modify a reviewers words.

  • Maeve

    After considering all these points of view, I’m no longer as sure as i was!
    Maybe different types of sites call for different policies on this matter.

    What do you readers think about doing it on this site? Should I edit the comments on these posts for basic spellings and verb endings?

  • Ali

    Hi Maeve,

    Thanks so much for this post. I can’t begin to describe how torn I was between making basic corrections or leaving glaring errors. I think it’s important to note that the overall ethos of the person’s comment would never change. All three of your well-reasoned points were helpful and echo how I feel.

    The comments from readers were also helpful. It’s clear to me that the job duties of a Web Content Editor is quite subjective. Thanks for the attention to this matter.

    – Ali

  • Maeve

    Ali,
    Glad to be of service.

    Clearly it is an issue that web editors must settle according to their own philosophies of language and commerce.

  • Shahbaz

    should i talk with you later i am too busy now.

  • John Spartan

    The answer depends on what type of products are being advertised. If you’re trying to appease to a whole group, then of course the grammar police is needed. But if you’re advertising the the young, Myspace crowd, then I doubt it’ll matter.

    Not that it’s a bad thing to be a Myspace crowd. I’m one of them.

  • Tim Mcg

    My son said ” I’ll be there when I’m done eating”. I told him it was not correct to say “done eating”. Am I right?

  • Lisa Angelettie

    I write a relationship advice column (AskGirlShrink.com) and I struggled with this for years. I’ve decided, or at least I’ve made the decision recently anyway, to allow the letter to stay grammatically intact. It lends more authenticity I believe to the column.

    Now this drives me nuts! But I’m trying to relinquish a bit of that control and allow the writers to see published what they actually wrote.

  • alice

    There is a long standing distinction between written and spoken language. Nuance, facial expression,body language, dialect, emphasis and tone all enrich the spoken word. When it comes to the written word there should be no jarring notes. Poor grammar and spelling are just that, jarring notes that detract from the train of thought. When skillfully edited, anything written is enhanced by removal of errors and no character is lost. Add to that the benefit of good example and the decision to edit wins.
    On another note, the “blue pencil” me wants to correct all the errors in the above posted comments;)

  • Deborah Parkhill Mullis

    Most people who go to the trouble to leave comments online are obviously literate, so I try not to humilate them forever in cyberspace. Computers make it easy to fix mistakes and just as easy to make mistakes. We all make grammar/spelling errors while typing away on a subject we feel passionate about. If professional writers need editing why should non-professional writers be denied the same courtesy? I once made a comment on a blog and was horrified when it posted with two or three errors that I somehow overlooked. There was no way to correct them and now I have to live with them forever – not a good thing for a professional writer who may be googled by a prospective employer. I try NOT to do that to people who leave comments on my blog.

  • Deborah Parkhill Mullis

    And see – even though I checked that last post over and over. I did not notice humiliate was spelled wrong until it posted … aargh!

  • Deborah Parkhill Mullis

    And that period after over should be a comma. I give up!

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