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The price of poor language

Are you confusing your customers with second-rate English? For example, did your company recently win a price? Are your people competent, and (by implication) not skilled? Are your writers to your webpage loosing you credibility with spelling misstakes, joiningwordstogether and split ting others, or not using all the write words – making the text that little bit to hard too read?

We all make mistakes sometimes. Especially if we’re writing in a second language. But if your organization has put blood, sweat and tears into creating an innovative product or service that stands head and shoulders above anything else on the market, doesn’t it deserve high-quality promotion? Shouldn’t messaging about what you stand for and what you offer be communicated clearly and professionally?

Do misspelt tweets make you look like a twit?

A friend of mine is adamant that the level of grammar and spelling in social media posts – like Facebook status updates or Twitter tweets – reveals whether the author paid attention in school. This begs the question: If a tweet can damage your credibility on a personal level, does this translate to business? Will loose language lose you credibility to the point that it also costs you sales?

There is evidence that the answer is yes. Studies show that people are put off by mistakes. Faced with poor English, potential customers question your attention to detail, your professionalism, and – at worst – write off your credibility altogether. In our information age, where we’re bombarded daily with promotional communications, one way to sort the wheat from the chaff is by the quality of the English. And people find a sloppily presented company with second-rate messaging hard to trust. Period.

Consider a UK poll that revealed: “59 percent of Britons would not use a company that had obvious grammatical or spelling mistakes on its website or marketing material, and 82 per cent would not use a company that had not correctly translated its material into English.”* Another report suggested that: “a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half”!**

This fits with our experience. Mistakes are distracting, confusing and can make a company seem unprofessional – sometimes to the point of untrustworthiness.

Is your produkt professionel, or your product professional?

How do decision makers make decisions?To be fair, when English is littered with second-language mistakes, it can – on occasion – be quaint or charming. For example, when a local restaurant offered “lamp” on its menu instead of “lamb”, it realistically warranted a laugh more than a complaint. But for B2B transactions, the stakes tend to be higher than a 200 kroner meal. For industrial and maritime equipment in particular, we’ve seen that it’s imperative that customers receive exactly what they specify. There’s simply no room for costly errors, and people need to be able to trust that you can deliver. So getting a hawk-eyed native-English nerd to proofread your documents can be valuable.

Let’s take a look at a handful of the most common bungles:

Companies win prizes, not prices

International PriceThe price versus prize is a mix-up that we see in Denmark all the time. And it’s such a shame! It makes little sense to a native-English reader who doesn’t necessarily know that the word “pris” in Danish can mean either “price” or “prize”. So rather than potential international clients being impressed, the result is some serious head scratching.

The lesson here? If your company wins a prize, be sure to describe it as such!

“Lose” versus “Loose”

Even native-English speakers mess this one up. In short, something that is “loose” is not tight. To “lose” is the opposite of gaining or winning. So: “The rubber coating means the clamp will not lose its grip” is correct. But: “The rubber coating means the clamp will not loose its grip” is incorrect.

The process of giving advice is advising

Another common one is mixing up advice with advising. Basically:

NO: “We have developed a highly specialized practice advicing on the particular issues”.

YES: “We have developed a highly specialized practice advising on the particular issues”.

BETTER YET: Be specific about what those “particular issues” are. It sounds more professional as: “We have developed a highly specialized practice advising on international and cross-border trade.”


NO: Our company strive to constantly improving the website to ensure that our visitors have a great experience when visiting our website.

MORE CORRECT: Our company strives to constantly improve our website to ensure that our visitors have a great experience when visiting our website. (But by definition, visitors visit the website, so the last part of the sentence is redundant).

SHOULD REALLY BE SOMETHING LIKE: On an ongoing basis, our company strives to improve our website to ensure that visitors are rewarded with a positive online experience.

Another no-no: Competencies are only so-so

Some Danish companies are more than competent at what they do – they’re talented or highly skilled.

To illustrate, I’d say that I’m competent at driving a car: I can get from A to B without incident. But do I understand how to get the most power out of the engine while using the least amount of fuel? Do I really know what’s going on underneath the bonnet? Not really. On the other hand, I have racing car driver friends who are truly skilled on the road and have expert knowledge of their machinery. The difference between us is monumental. So I’d never accept a description of their driving as simply “competent”. That suggests they’re proficient, but fairly mediocre. Instead, I’d say they were “skilled”, “highly skilled”, or “experts”, even. They’ve spent years practicing their craft, and are passionate about the details.

If your employees are the equivalent of a racing car driver with their work, then why describe them as simply competent? No doubt they’re more than that – they’re skilled, and maybe even experts at what they do. Why not use the right terminology to tell the world?

What next? Ask for help!

Analysing social medai contestsTo avoid making a meal of things, ask for help from a native-English writer. A good one!

And let’s be clear on this. You need a professional to get things right when it matters. I often see job ads requiring English “at native level”. However, if English is not your native language, you’d have to be exceptionally talented to write like it is! And secondly, just because someone is good at English, or even native in English, it doesn’t necessarily make them a good writer of marketing materials.

Of course, it also works reciprocally: My writer friends from England, Australia, Canada, the US or New Zealand wouldn’t dream of writing something important in Danish without having a Dane check it over. And these are highly educated people who have lived here for 15 or so years, and speak the language extremely well. Yet they have no shame in deferring to the native-Danish experts. That’s because there are just some things that, even if they’re grammatically correct, can serve as the equivalent of clanging saucepans in the ears of a Dane.

If you’ve experienced that before, then you can understand why some English mistakes are like dragging fingernails down a gritty blackboard. And that’s probably not the kind of effect you want your promotional materials to have on potential international customers.

So, if it’s important to make an impact, have a skilled and professional native-English writer look over your text and polish it up. It might make all the difference to your sales success.


* Jason Hesse, Poor grammar on websites scares 59% away, at: 12 November 2013.

** Sean Coughlan, Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in lost online sales, at: 14 July 2011.

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Mandy Chilcott

I’m a communications consultant with Melba Media – an Eye for Image Alliance Partner. I work with all kinds of content, but I’m particularly interested in the overlap between B2B marketing and ideas on innovation and creativity, and social responsibility. Since 2003, I’ve switched between roles in law and communications, and recently completed a Masters in Organisational Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Copenhagen Business School. Throughout my work and study, credibility through good storytelling has featured as a strong theme. Whether it’s drafting courtroom rhetoric, writing business plans, or marketing new technology in offshore drilling, a story only truly has value when it engages its audience. I’d like to share some of my ideas on how to do that on IntegratedB2B and hear what you think.

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