Bad spelling equals no profits?
By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO
Published: January 28, 2004
When Holly Marshall wanted to sell a pair of dangling earrings, a popular style these days, she listed them on eBay once, and got no takers. She tried a second time, and still no interest.
Was it the price? The fuzzy picture? Maybe the description: a beautiful pair of chandaleer earrings.
Such is the eBay underworld of misspellers, where the clueless — and sometimes just careless — sell labtop computers, throwing knifes, Art Deko vases, camras, comferters and saphires.
They do get bidders, but rarely very many. Often the buyers are those who troll for spelling slip-ups, buying items on the cheap and selling the
m all over again on eBay, but with the right spelling and for the right price. John H. Green, a jeweler in Central Florida, is one of them.
Mr. Green once bought a box of gers for $2. They were gears for pocket watches, which he cleaned up and put back on the auction block with the right spelling. They sold for $200. “I’ve bought and sold stuff on eBay and Yahoo that I bought for next to nothing” because of poor spelling or vague descriptions, he said.
David Scroggins, who lives in Milwaukee, also searches for misspellings. His company provides entertainment for weddings and corporate events, and microphone systems for shows at Wisconsin’s casinos. He has bought Hubbell electrical cords for a 10th of their usual cost by searching for Hubell and Hubbel. And he now operates his entire business by laptop computers, having bought three Compaqs for a pittance simply by asking for Compacts instead.
No one knows how much misspelling is out there in eBay land, where more than $23 billion worth of goods was sold last year. The company does flag common misspellings, but wrong spellings can also turn up similar misspellings, so that buyers and sellers frequently read past the Web site’s slightly bashful line asking, by any chance, “Did you mean . . . chandelier?”
One unofficial survey — an hour’s search for creative spellings — turned up dozens of items, includin
g bycicles, telefones, dimonds, mother of perl, cuttlery, bedroom suits and loads of antiks.
Contacted, the sellers were often surprised to hear that they had misspelled their wares.
Ms. Marshall, who lives in Dallas, said she knew she was on shaky ground when she set out to spell chandelier. But instead of flipping through a dictionary, she did an Internet search for chandaleer and came up with 85 or so listings.
She never guessed, she said, that results like that meant she was groping in the spelling wilderness. Chandelier, spelled right, turns up 715,000 times.
Some experts say there is no evidence that people are spelling worse than they ever did. But with the growth of e-mail correspondence and instant messaging, language has grown more informal. And much as calculators did for arithmetic, spell checkers have made good spelling seem to quite a number of people like an obsolete virtue.
Not that spell checkers are used by nearly everyone. Indeed, experts say the Internet — with its discussion boards, blogs and self-published articles — is a treasure trove of bad spelling.
“Before the Internet came along, poor spelling by the public was by and large not exposed,” said Paige P. Kimble, the director of the National Spelling Bee. Now, though, “we are becoming acutely aware of what a challenge spelling is for us.”
Sandra Wilde, author of the 1992 book “You Kan Red This!: Spelling and Punctuation for Whole Language Classrooms K-6,” said language served a variety of purposes, so that in some settings it might make sense to skip punctuation or to speak in slang. She likens instant messaging, for example, to notes passed at the back of the classroom when the teacher’s back is turned: there is no premium on proper spelling.
“On something like eBay though,” she said, “it matters.’
Henry Gomez, vice president for corporate communications at eBay, said the company did not generally hear from sellers who misspell, and had no way of gauging how many sales might have involved misspelled listings.
But some sellers clearly bear in mind the potential for disaster when preparing their advertisements. Warren Lieu of Houston, who was selling hunting and fishing knives on eBay recently, covered all the bases: his listing advertised every sort of alphabetic butchery, including knifes and knive.
Mr. Lieu, a computer programmer, keeps a list of common misspellings, including labtop for laptop and Cusinart for Cuisinart.
His strategy of listing multiple spellings, he said, is based on his experience as a buyer. “I’m a bad speller myself,” he said. So his mistakes in searching for items led him to realize that he could buy up bargains.
“I’d go ahead and deliberately misspell it when I searched for it
ems,” he said.
Jim Griffith, whose official title at eBay is dean of eBay education, teaches 40 to 50 seminars a year around the country. Although the auction house flags common misspellings online, Mr. Griffith said, the most common question he gets is, “When will eBay get a spell checker?” His answer? “You go to a store called a bookstore, and you buy something called a dictionary.”
Even some who have made money off misspellings have felt their bite.
When Mr. Scroggins, who has been helping his parents sell off the contents of his father’s jewelry and watch repair store, recently listed “a huge lot of earings,” it attracted only three bids, and sold for just $5.50.
And then there was the time he sold the family’s flatwear.